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Our View: Family meal time helps more than nutrition

A new initiative expanding across Kentucky aims to bring families together more often, with a plethora of social and emotional benefits for children in mind.

The Dinner Table Project was created by Four Rivers Behavioral Health Regional Prevention Center in 2015, building on research showing families that have dinner together are closer and function better as a family unit, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

The program encourages at least once-a-week sit-down meals where families come together to share food and conversation, while distracting items, such as phones, televisions and electronic devices, are put away.

Initially launched in the Four Rivers region, which includes Paducah and far western Kentucky counties, BHDID is working with all Kentucky Regional Prevention Centers to expand the program statewide. This will include providing resources that schools and other youth-serving agencies can utilize to promote parents eating dinner regularly with their children, as well as resources for parents to utilize during these meals to spark conversation with their children.

The public can sign up for a monthly newsletter with more helpful resources and information at thedinnertableproject.org.

According to the American College of Pediatricians, family time at the dinner table and family conversation in general has declined by more than 30 percent.

Families with children under age 18 report having family dinners three to four times per week. One-third of families with 11- to 18-year-olds eat one or two meals a week at most together. Only one fourth eat seven or more family meals per week.

“The experience at the meal table has also declined in quality with the increase in distractions such as television watching,” ACOP reports.

“Research indicates children of families that share meals together have better academic performance, higher self-esteem, a greater sense of resilience, lower risk of teen pregnancy, lower risk of depression, lower rates of obesity and a lower likelihood of developing an eating disorder,” according to the press release.

Some specific benefits include:

— Teens who have dinner with their families seven times a week are almost 40 percent likelier to say they receive mostly A’s and B’s in school compared to teens who have dinner with their families two or fewer times a week (62 percent vs. 45 percent)

— Children ages 9 to 14 who have more regular dinners with their families have more healthful dietary patterns, including eating more fruits and vegetables, less saturated and trans fat, fewer fried foods and sodas, lower glycemic load,

and more vitamins and other micro-nutrients. Children are 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating. Children are 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods.

—  Teens who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are two and a half times more likely to use marijuana.

— Teens who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to use alcohol.

— Teens who have infrequent family dinners are four times more likely to use tobacco.

— Teens who had more frequent family dinners were less likely to engage in sexual activity.

— Teens who had more frequent family dinners were less likely to experience depression.

While family dinner can seem like a small part of the day, the benefits can be huge, as evidenced by scientific research.

Generation after generation the tradition of family mealtime has declined, but it’s time for families to get back to this practice.

It is what is best for our children physically, emotionally and spiritually. By dedicating even half an hour to sitting down and having a family meal, parents can drastically improve the quality of life and reduce risky behaviors for their children.

Start small by establishing even one family meal time each week where you come together, free of distractions by phones, TVs, computers or other devices. Play a game at the dinner table or take turns talking about your day. Ask questions. Be engaged with the most important people in your life.

Some traditions should never die. Family mealtime is one of those.

We hope this initiative will spread across the state and the country to encourage more family togetherness. We will all reap the benefits if it does.