November 11, 2005 | By: Terri McLean
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Although most people admit that family mealtime is important, studies show only about one-third of American families eat together once a day.

If Elaine Russell has her way, however, that will soon change – at least in Kentucky.
Russell, a registered dietitian, is leading an effort to bring Kentucky families back to the table for mealtime. She was on hand at this year’s Growing Healthy Kids Conference in Lexington to roll out the “Share Meals-Make Memories” campaign, which is spearheaded by a statewide coalition called Partnership for a Fit Kentucky.

“Family meals are where kids belong,” Russell told the conference’s 180 attendees, which included county Extension agents, school food service workers, principals, registered dietitians, and parents from across the state. “I want to convince you that the benefits to the families in our community are significant when family mealtime becomes more common.”

Armed with numerous research studies, Russell said eating together as a family – no matter what size or shape that family takes – impacts many areas of a child’s life. 

“Family meals affect a child’s academic performance, risk-taking behaviors, relationship with other family members, emotional health, and diet and physical health,” she said on the second day of the conference, which was sponsored by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Department for Public Health.

For example, research from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has consistently shown that the more often young people sit down at the 
dinner table with their families, the less likely they are to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or use
illegal drugs, Russell reported. Other studies have shown that family meals are associated with improved intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, protein, iron, fiber and vitamins. Still other studies demonstrate a connection between family mealtime and a child’s academic success.

Despite the evidence, Russell admitted there are many obstacles to fitting family mealtime into people’s busy lives, including work schedules and after-school activities.

“You can’t just tell parents you need to sit down and eat together; you have to ask other people to help us. We have to go to the coaches. We have to go to the schools. We have to go to the work sites,” she said.

Lori Rice, health associate with the Health Education through Extension Leadership program at the UK College of Agriculture, is also active in Partnership for a Fit Kentucky and has been involved in the new family meal campaign. She described the obstacles from a cultural perspective.

“I think before, we really didn’t know the benefits of family mealtime. It was just something we did,” Rice said. “It was culture. Culture has changed. So I think just educating people about the fact that it was a big component in the health of our children will help. If we can bring that back we can improve all different areas of health … as well as childhood obesity and nutrition-related issues.” 

Both Russell and Rice are convinced that the obstacles can be overcome as long as people and communities work together.

“It seems a little overwhelming, but I think it can be done,” Russell said.

Contact: 

Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Elaine Russell, 502-564-3827
Lori Rice, 859-257-2968 ext. 80925