Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sharing Stories about Family Dinner

One of the initiatives I'm working on at eatdinner.org is to collect personal stories about family dinner. Whenever I mention that I work on family dinner, I get wonderful feedback about what a difference family dinner makes. (I also get knee-jerk guilty apologies, which are totally unnecessary!)  Sometimes the driving force behind family dinner is a health problem, such as the child has a food allergy or the father was diagnosed with high cholesterol. Sometimes one or both parents just believe in it and jump through all the necessary hoops to make it happen, several nights a week. Always I hear that it is worth the effort in terms of staying connected with your partner and you kids,

Much of public health research is all about the numbers:
  • How many calories are consumed with an average school lunch?  What are proportions of fat, sodium etc?
  • How many people are obese? 
  • What is the percentage of kids who have tried drugs or alcohol, and at what age?
But narrative stories are important too and can be studied systematically. Qualitative research can often lend the interesting details and point out true themes and rationales behind health choices that the statistics miss.
  • Are people eating family dinner more because of the recession?
A statistic may tell you yes or no, but only narrative stories can tell us what family are getting out of eating dinner together more often and whether it is a temporary solution or potentially a more long-lasting trend. The stories may help us understand what exactly it is about family dinner (or breakfast or lunch, for that matter) that provides the protective glue within a family.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be developing a structured interview to share family dinner stories. I hope you'll add your voice to help us create a rich narrative of family dinner. In the meantime, please visit the eatdinner.org Facebook page (Like us!) and add your thoughts under the Discussion section. Or feel free to add in the comments below. Thank you!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fan Club: Truth, Integrity, Blogging

Several bloggers I follow have been throwing down the "T" word: Truth. What's Cooking wrote a compelling post about how to speak the truth, have integrity and still get your message across in a positive way.  The Yummy Mummy publicly offered her book proposal in order to help herself and others to squelch those inner doubts and to come out with your story, your way. And this month Integrity is getting big play, with the Twitterwaves buzzing about the HFCS and Iowa Corn Tour Debate and whether or what bloggers should get paid for product reviews, what are rules for disclosure, etc. (PhD in Parenting, Mom 101, and Spain in Iowa).

Truth in storytelling is something I struggle with as I write about family dinner, although the sponsorship debate* hasn't come up for me (yet!). I wonder how to balance an optimistic and forward-looking message without seeming like a Pollyanna.  I wonder just how much of my own life to share and how much to keep it strictly to the "business" of family dinner research.

Specifically I think about,
  • How to present research and sound advice to parents without being judgmental. 
  • How to sing the praises of family dinner and better nutrition for you and your kids while acknowledging the hard facts that it can be a struggle, night after night. 
  • How to get policymakers and researchers to consider family dinner as a health promotion effort worth taking seriously.
My goal is to present family dinner research and information in a compelling way, and I know personal stories are one of the best ways to do it. I'm willing to share, but don't want it to be just about me and my family. Many of us are working on similar goals and I would love us to join in conversation (Foodie Patootie Jolly Tomato, Feed Our Families Blog). I'd really like to collect the personal stories of other people, document the struggles we all face, and collect tips and advice from parents in the trenches.

Will you  help me do that? Add a story or link to the comments section or just email me with your ideas or support. Thanks!

*For the record, Stouffer's and ConAgra have NOT come calling. In fact, Stouffer's blocked my comments even though I was far from critical of their Let's Fix Dinner campaign. It should be noted that they partnered with the respected CASA research group for the promotion who must have reined them in, er guided them, a bit.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just Cook: Knife Skills for Parent and Child

This week I came across a couple of videos about basic knife skills that I hope will offer inspiration: one for parent, one for child.

Having family dinner can be sabotaged by many things, but two persistent threats are cooking skills of the parent and attention spans of the kids. Many parents feel unable to cook and then feel overwhelmed by the daily process of making a home meal. But like any skill, cooking skills can be developed slowly and surely over time with great reward. Jamie Oliver has a great series of videos related to his new book 30 minute meals that can help round out your basic cooking skills. This one's on knife use.

Getting kids involved in the kitchen at the end of a long day can be a harder trick, but a useful one becuase they are engaged, learning and helping out. Kids do want to help out in the kitchen, but it often just adds to a parent's sense of stress. To relax and get them involved, it helps to have a few tricks to engage your child safely in the kitchen. I sometimes have my youngest put already-chopped vegetables into little bowls for a simplified mise en place or have her measure out the ingredients for simple sauces and stir. As she gets older, I may be inspired by J.M. Hirsch's book and video High Flavor, Low Labor to move her up to knife skills!

Thanks for the video tips from The Lunch Tray and from my tweep @FoodiePatootie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Family Dinner Beneficial to Low Income Urban Youth

Research: This study followed a large sample of urban, racially-diverse youth from low-income families from middle school age to the beginning of high school (3.5 years on average, n=4,750) and found that kid's perceptions of parent-child communication and frequency of family dinner was positively associated. That is, the more these kids ate family dinners together, the more likely they were to view their ability to communicate with parents in a positive light.

Although the frequency of family dinners declined as the kids got older, the study suggests that teens can benefit from family dinner and that eating family dinner at middle school age has enduring positive effects, at least 2 years later. Journal of Family Psychology June 2010

Reality: The positive effects of family dinner are NOT just a middle class phenomenon. It is never too late to start family dinner, but it seems important to set a routine by the time your kids are in middle school. Teens will not be as available for family dinner, due to their independence and other time commitments, as are younger children, but having family dinner as a regular option is beneficial to them as well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mothers and Meals: Attitude Makes a Difference

Research finding: Mom's attitude towards family dinner makes a difference. When mothers care about family meals, and take time to plan, shop and prepare for them, older kids and teens care about family meals too and are more likely to participate. Appetite, Sept 2010

Reality Check: Mom can set the priority, but she doesn't have to do all the work. Get Dad involved in the cooking or shopping and get the kids to help prep, cook, or clean up.

A common negative attitude was the time pressure associated with making family meals. More planning and organization can help ease this pressure and make family meals easier to accomplish. Easier said than done, of course (!), but try weekly menu planning so that nightly dinner is a less of a scramble.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Strength of Family Ties: Results from CASA Family Dinner Study 2010

Teens want to eat dinner with their families and family dinner strengthens ties among parents and teens, according to CASA's most recent study. All this makes sense: family dinner gives us the time and space as parents to connect to our kids and listen to them. It helps to have family time be something teens can "count on" rather than a random event. As much as teens want "their own lives," they both need and want to be connected. Family dinner is a way to do it, and it's never too late to start!

Here are some key findings from CASA's national adolescent survey.
  • 60% of teens have dinner with their family 5  or more times a week. This statistic has been steady from most of the past decade.
  • 75% of teens talk to their parents at dinner about their lives.
  • 80% of parents agree that dinner helps them learn more about their teen's life.
  • Teens who frequently have dinner with their families (5 or more nights a week) are twice as likely to talk to their parents about their lives than are teens who infrequently have dinner with family (2 or less nights a week).
  • Most teens (60%) want to have dinner with their families more often.
  • 72% of teens think family dinner is important.
  • Kids who frequently have dinner with their parents are less likely to use drugs, smoke, or drink alcohol. Of these kids, 70% reply that one reason is that they know their parents would be upset.

Family Dinner Contributes to the Strength of Family Ties. This year CASA added a new dimension to the survey to measure the strength of family ties and how that was related to illegal drug and alcohol use among teens. Stronger family ties resulted in less likelihood to use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Family dinner contributed to stronger family ties independently and by influencing two other component of the scale, as noted below.
  • Teens who had frequent family dinners were 3x more likely to report an excellent relationship with both mom and dad. 
  • Teens who had frequent family dinners were 2x more likely to report that their parents were good at listening to them.

Source: CASA, The Importance of Family Dinners, IV, September 2010. Full Report available by pdf.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Translating Family Dinner Research into Action

One of the things that I aspire to do with my work on this eatdinner blog/twitter/facebook page is to help translate research on family dinner into action. The statistics on the benefits of family dinner shouldn't just be empty slogans or exhortations of guilt directed toward busy families. The personal benefits of family dinner for you and your kids are important, but from a public health perspective, the societal benefits are even greater. Less kids doing drugs and drinking, more kids doing well in school, less childhood obesity: these positive outcomes affect the whole community and the whole country.

I know from experience that the academic research community puts a lot of effort into studying problems and identifying determinants of health, but often gives short shrift to actually developing and implementing solutions.  I just read a recent literature review in the Journal of American Dietetic Association that found that only a quarter of the studies on Weight Loss Management had any mention of real-world adoption or maintenance of the weight-loss strategies studied. The authors concluded that it was unknown what popular strategies could actually work becuase real-world adoption was not effectively considered. If you are not thinking about real-world adoption, especially in an area like weight-loss, why study these strategies at all?

Many research studies that mention family dinner end with a statement like "Family dinner is important and this message should be shared with the public." Gee, thanks. Can we get a little more detail please? I think the research community should go to the next level. The identification of key elements of family dinner success and the persistent barriers to family meal times would be a good start. There is also important work to be done assessing how public information and education on family dinner should be tailored regionally or by socioeconomic or cultural group.

Perhaps it's only fair to expect community-based organizations or policymakers to take up where the researchers have left off. CASA, a national research center, has done an amazing job with their annual Family Day campaign and getting key statistics out to the media. But one day is not enough; family dinners require a concerted commitment and attention throughout the year.

The best support for family dinner at this point has been from the social community of the Internet, with blog/twitter/facebook commentators weighing in on everything from menu planning to easy weeknight recipes to parenting support. To Malcolm Gladwell, I say, don't undestimate the power of weak ties and social networks. Spreading information and collaboration can do more than you think to change the world, though it may not be as dramatic as sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

Let's use the power of this social network to collaborate and learn from each other. What ideas do you have to help families make the commitment to family dinner?