Food for thought: Eat together

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WASHINGTON (CNS) - Today, with so many families operating at warp-speed busyness because of work and after school activities, the idea of sitting down together for a family meal may seem like a quaint notion from a bygone era.

Instead, families eat at odd times and frequently not together. Parents and children grab dinner on the go or eat when it's convenient, often in the company of the television, computer or cell phone.

While many may just chalk this up as a casualty of modern life, plenty of experts advise against it. They urge families to find a way to spend time together at the dinner table, even if it's just for takeout food. The key, they say, is consistency, not gathering at the table just for big holiday bashes but on a regular basis for good old-fashioned and in-person conversation.

According to one group, the benefits of such a basic activity are far reaching. More than 10 years of studies by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, known as CASA, at Columbia University in New York has consistently found that the more often children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.

The group's 2011 study on family dinners found that teens in particular who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are almost four times likelier to use tobacco; more than twice as likely to use alcohol; two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana; and almost four times likelier to admit they expect to try drugs in the future than teens who have frequent family dinners (five-seven meals per week).

The study also found that children who ate regular family meals were 40 percent likelier to get good grades in school. Out of teenagers who dined with their parents and siblings fewer than three times per week, 20 percent received below-average or failing grades, compared with 9 percent of their age group who ate family dinners regularly

These findings prompted the organization to institute a national movement in 2001 to remind families that frequent dinners make a difference. The highlight of the initiative is an annual day - the fourth Monday in September - specifically devoted to families eating dinner together.

Organizers of the national program realize the family dinner concept is a foreign concept to many and have provided the necessary tools to help families find get started with recipes and even conversation starters posted on the website casafamilyday.org.

In 2010, Family Day was endorsed by President Barack Obama, all state governors, more than 1,000 mayors and county executives.

Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford, Conn., also endorsed the promotion of family mealtime in a 2011 column in The Catholic Transcript, Hartford's diocesan newspaper.

He said the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" spells out how the family is "the original cell of social life" but he also realized the "tremendous obstacles that families face in meeting the challenges of every day."

"The important thing is for the family to be together and to recognize the value of doing this frequently during every week," he said. He also noted that families should try to work around schedule conflicts and perhaps even schedule a meal other than dinner as the family get-together time.

He also put in a plug for turning off technological distractions during the meal.

"The important fact is that you are all there," he said. "The long-term dividends your family will receive will be the profound spiritual and emotional return on your personal investment."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970