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Children of families who dine together not only have diets higher in a host of important nutrients — including fiber, calcium, iron and folate — they also are less likely to suffer depression, a new study by the University of Minnesota recently confirmed.

Focusing on adolescents, researchers found that those who ate five or more dinners with their families were less likely to experience thoughts of suicide or experiment with cigarettes, drugs or alcohol than those who had four or fewer meals with their families. Interestingly, the positive influence of family mealtime was even more pronounced with girls than boys.

Unfortunately, less than half of children regularly have dinner with their families — with the percentage declining as they get older (while more than half of 9-year-olds in one Harvard survey ate family dinners daily, less than a third of fourteen-year-olds did). Depending on age, the average number of family chow-downs range from three to five a week.

Nationally these numbers have been on the decline, including a 33% decrease over the past three decades in families who report regularly having dinner together.

Could such plunging trend lines have contributed to rising rates of childhood obesity? Quite possibly, especially when you consider the differences in dietary patterns between those kids who eat en famille and those who eat alone, most likely devant le TV.

A recent Children’s Nutrition Research Center survey found that overweight children reported eating 50% more of their meals while watching television than did their normal-weight peers. Other surveys found that those who eat with family have lower intakes of fried food and soda — both calorically dense and nutritionally negligible.

Family meals have 50% more fruits and vegetables than those consumed alone and are three times more likely to include low-fat options. These advantages don’t appear to hold for families who eat together in front of the tube.

Published August 23, 2004

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