Time spent around the dinner table doesn’t have to be perfect — it doesn’t even have to be spent at a table or during dinnertime, and one national initiative is out to help West Virginians find the recipe for their perfect family dinner.
When it comes to having dinner with loved ones, “good enough” is often more than enough for families to see positive results, said Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization headquartered at Harvard University that offers tools and tips to help families establish a family dinner routine.
According to Barendsen, studies link regular family meals with many positive outcomes for children, including better grades, resilience and self-esteem, as well as lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression.
“We’re really a movement about food, fun and conversation about things that matter,” she said. “There are many benefits to family dinner that are well-documented; there are academic benefits, believe it or not — for families who eat dinner together, kids develop vocabulary faster than when you read to your kids. It’s a surprising fact, but true.
“There are social and emotional benefits for families, and obviously, nutritional ones — when you sit down and eat, people typically eat more fruits and vegetables. There are many, many reasons we should do it.”
Barendsen and others from the project visited Charleston this week to help launch the project in West Virginia, where a number of the health problems the Family Dinner Project hopes to impact are prevalent.
More than one-third of the state’s residents are obese, and West Virginia’s teen birth rate ranks among the top 10 highest in the country. The state’s substance abuse statistics are staggering, with the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, and the Charleston and Huntington metropolitan areas have consistently ranked among the “most miserable cities in America,” according to Gallup Healthways.
According to Barendsen, the project considers time spent with friends or family while engaging each other over a meal to fit within the definition of “family dinner” it tries to promote, and she encourages people to approach the concept in creative ways.
“If you can’t manage dinner together — maybe someone works late — maybe a late-night snack. When that last person comes home, sit with them,” she said. “It’s about finding that time and being creative. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dinner.”
April Hamilton, a Charleston resident and author of the food blog April’s Kitchen Counter, has worked for the last two years to launch the Family Dinner Project in West Virginia. On Wednesday, Hamilton, who was working with Americorps VISTA volunteers from KEYS 4 Healthy Kids to prepare food for the project’s family dinner event in Kanawha City, said she hopes to help the initiative take root in the state and remind residents to be more mindful of their time spent together.
“I hope we can remind ourselves to slow down and make plans to have dinner at home, or to have a more engaging dinner out, rather than just having fast food in the car as almost an afterthought,” she said. “More than just ‘oh, shoot, we’re late and we’re starving.’ I think if people could come to enjoy it — if they had the tools and resources — it could become part of their routine.
“It doesn’t have to be fancy; it could be a can of soup.”
Only roughly one-third of American families eat dinner together, Barendsen said. To combat that, the project has created programs like Food, Fun & Conversation, a free guide that includes healthy recipes, conversation starters and games, and the 21 Dinner Challenge, which asks families to plan and hold 21 dinners together to cement the practice as a habit.
“We’re hoping we can really jump start something here,” Barendsen said. “If there’s one message I can get out to all of you, it’s that it doesn’t have to be perfect. We’ve talked to so many families who have rekindled their family dinners, and it’s made a huge difference in their lives.”
To learn more about The Family Dinner Project, visit www.thefamilydinnerproject.org.