The Scoop on Food

Why Your Cell Doesn't Belong at the Table

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Put down that phone. Dinner is one of the few times when families get a chance to step away from the chaos of work, school, and extracurricular activities and give their full attention to one another. But talking can be hard when there's a screen between you and your children. Just 25 percent of families ban all electronic devices during suppertime, according to a survey funded by Dixie. Being absorbed by your phone can discourage face-to-face conversations and distract you from crucial bonding time.

Parenting and family expert Dr. Michele Borba says meals can be a great opportunity to let kids practice communication skills and manners, but having distractions can take away from these learning moments.

"We're dealing with kids who would rather text than talk," says Dr. Borba. "They're comfortable as digital natives, but we are starting to see a slide in children's emotional skills."

Kids aren't the only ones guilty of pulling out their cell phones. About 70 percent of Dixie survey respondents said parents are the family members most likely to get distracted by their phones.

"Many children are concerned that the biggest offenders are parents," says Dr. Borba. "Children and teens say when we have dinner with family, they feel more connected."

Family meals have benefits beyond communicating with loved ones. Eating meals together in high school was associated with better eating habits during young adulthood, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Those who ate most often with their families as teens ate more fruits and vegetables, particularly highly nutritious ones, than those who ate with their parents less often, the study found.

What's more, eating together has been correlated with a lower chance of high-risk behavior among adolescents. The more meals 6th- through 12th-graders had with their families, the less likely they were to drink, engage in violent behavior, use drugs, and experience excessive weight loss, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Plus, those who ate five to seven times per week with their families were nearly four times more likely than their peers who had one or no family dinners to report having family support, and more than twice as likely to say they're engaged in school and have the motivation to succeed, the survey found.

Although these studies focused on teenagers, it's never too early to start eating more meals together. Family life will likely get busier as your kids grow up, so it's important to make meals a habit when kids are young. It's not just about physically sitting down together; it's about taking the time to engage with your loved ones.

Dr. Borba joined Dixie's Dark for Dinner movement, encouraging families to focus on mealtime and to "Be More Here." Every Sunday, participants are asked to show their social media followers they're disengaging by setting a Dark for Dinner image as their profile picture, then leaving their phones and electronics in another room while they eat. Once family members log back on, Dixie suggests they share a moment from their meal using the hashtag #DarkForDinner.

Removing distractions once a week is a great start, but it doesn't have to end there. Make electronics-free meals a habit and see just how much you can get out of quality face time with your family.

Get recipes and shopping lists for easy weeknight meals.

Marissa Laliberte is an editorial intern at Parents magazine who loves running, baking, and drinking coffee. Follow her on Twitter.

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Image: Family dinner via Shutterstock