Giving a Damn

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Family dinners build relationships, and help kids do better in school.

Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us—45 minutes away from our usual, quotidian distractions—and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of my day

Using data from nearly three-quarters of the world’s countries, a new analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that students who do not regularly eat with their parents are significantly more likely to be truant at school. The average truancy rate in the two weeks before the International Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered to 15-year-olds by the OECD and used in the analysis as a measure for absenteeism, was about 15 percent throughout the world on average, but it was nearly 30 percent when pupils reported they didn’t often share meals with their families.

Children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do, as outlined in a research presentation given at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria this May. On the contrary, children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

In her book Eating TogetherAlice Julier argues that dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios..

How then do we eat better, not just from a nutritional perspective, but from a psychological one as well?

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art,” said the 17th-century writer François de La Rochefoucauld. What “intelligence” means in the context of eating is debatable. There are those who obsess over their food—where it is sourced, if it is organic, the nebulous desire for culinary “originality”—who are known in the U.S. as “foodies” and in France as generation Le Fooding, both of which are the hipsters of cuisine, moneyed and sometimes picky. But this doesn’t seem quite like “intelligence” as de La Rochefoucauld meant it.

Perhaps to “eat intelligently,” one needs only to eat together. Although it would be nice to eat healthily as well, even take-out makes for a decent enough meal, psychologically speaking, so long as your family, roommates, or friends are present.

It’s incredible what we’re willing to make time for if we’re motivated. (Although we often end up just a bit too squeezed to make it to the gym in the morning, we can still find time to go to the movies after work.) Perhaps seeing eating together not as another appointment on a busy schedule, but rather as an opportunity to de-stress, a chance to catch up with those whom we love then, could help our children do better in school, get in better shape, and be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Eating together also led children to report better relationships with their parents and surely relationships between adults can similarly benefit.

CODY C. DELISTRATY is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News. (July 2014)

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