Monday November 12, 2012

As you read this, an estimated 42.2 million Americans are preparing to travel thousands of miles to gather with friends and family for the Thanksgiving holiday. Motivated by dreams of golden-brown turkey and a cornucopia of homemade culinary delights, Americans will go to great lengths to secure a seat around the table for a Thanksgiving feast. A national survey by Pew Research Center finds that 89 percent of Americans will sit down to a family meal this Thanksgiving holiday but only half of U.S. families sit down to dinner every day.

Katherine Gillespie is a local champion for providing fresh food to families in Windham County. As the Farm to School program manager for Post Oil Solutions, Katherine is not only concerned about what’s for dinner, but also who’s sitting at the table. I asked her about her thoughts around the importance of the family dinner tradition as it relates to our well-being.

"I was fortunate to have grown up in a family that truly valued cooking, eating and sharing our meals together," said Katherine. "My mother loves to cook and I’ve come to appreciate mealtimes, particularly dinner time, not simply as a time of consuming calories but as a celebration of food, a time for valuable connection, communication and an event seeped in history and traditions. A meal is an event worthy of respect and it provides valuable opportunities for learning life skills. It’s also a time to share the bounty from the garden, try new foods from neighboring farms and experience with tastes, textures and unique flavor combinations."

Katherine shared that her family members are hardworking individuals who, when not working 40 hours a week, volunteer their time to community projects and town committees. She and her siblings had hectic schedules of afternoon music lessons, sports practices, games and weekend events. Finding time to coordinate multiple schedules to make time for family meals wasn’t easy, it was a priority. "Growing up my parents stressed the importance of dinner time as our one opportunity in the day to come together in the same room, share stories, tell jokes, discuss weekend plans, and envision our next holiday or family vacation. Without our regular dinner times we would fracture, begin moving in our own directions, and this did sometimes happen especially as we grew older."

For many of us like Katherine, dinnertime was a respected event in our home; a time to lay the expectation for mealtime traditions, to teach manners and improve family communications. These qualities are engrained in our minds and fortunately our behaviors. Now as a working professional, Katherine says she clearly understands and personally faces a number of the obstacles around making family meals a daily routine. She’s motivated to keep mealtime a priority for her family, not just for the sake of tradition, but also because a growing number of research studies that show significant positive health benefits.

A multitude of research studies indicate that kids who eat dinner with their families are less likely to smoke, drink or do drugs. Family meals are also related to higher academic performance, greater psychosocial well-being and a reduced risk of using unhealthy weight control behaviors. Teens eating regular family meals have been shown to have higher fruit, vegetable and calcium intakes than their peers not reporting regular family meals and consumed fewer soft drinks. Watching television during family meals has been associated with poor dietary quality among adolescents. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports that more meal time at home is the single strongest factor in better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems in children of all ages.

While the research compellingly advocates for the routine of the daily family mealtime the busy realities of life can derail even the best intentions. Don’t let your heart be troubled. Katherine says, "Whether you’re cooking a gourmet meal, ordering from your favorite take-out place or eating on the go, rest assured that what your kids really want during dinnertime is you."

Looking for ways to engage conversation with your kids around the table? Visit Casafamilyday.org for conversations starters and ideas to spice up dinnertime with fun planning tools and activities for the whole family. Be sure to establish a few ground rules for your family mealtime such as no television and or handheld devices. Yes, this means you, too. You have our promise, everyone will survive.

From our families to yours we wish you a happy and blessed Thanksgiving holiday.

Shannon Albritton is the communications coordinator for the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition and "Matters of Substance" is a collaborative column of the BAPC, a comprehensive community effort to prevent and reduce alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse in Windham Southeast area. For more information or to join their prevention efforts, please visit BrattleboroAreaPreventionCoalition.org or call 802-257-2175.