Michael Zacka, Tetra PakBy Michael Zacka, president and CEO, Tetra Pak North America

In American politics, the news reports and advertising campaigns surrounding the candidates make it sound like they agree on little to nothing. But there’s no doubt that both care deeply about preserving the American family. Ironically, this year's celebration of International Day of Families was drowned out by the onslaught of press around the election, yet this is exactly what the election is about.

The 2012 theme for the annual observance--which highlights the substantive issues that affect families worldwide--is the need for work-family balance. This is especially compelling for Americans, who are renowned for their strong work ethics and long hours. It can take many forms, but evidence suggests that eating together at dinner, or whenever else it’s possible, may be most effective for children’s health and welfare.

Research by American social scientists confirms that this single undertaking can be an important influence on a child’s social and physical development. Yet despite its proven benefits, family meals have declined over the last few decades. Harvard University’s Robert Putman was among the first social scientists to document this in his 2000 tome “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He found that families eating together nightly declined from 50% in 1977 to 34% in 1999. The figure has rebounded, but not by much: a 2010 study by NPD Group says the figure is now at 47%.

  Gathering together

over a daily meal gives

us the opportunity to

focus on our children,

treasure their presence

and just listen. 

There are lots of reasons why it’s tough for families to find the time to eat together, and we all know them—long days at work leave little time to shop and cook, as does ferrying kids to extracurricular activities and helping with homework. And kids have just as much to fulfill their daily obligations. But the benefits of eating a family dinner, or meal given the realities of modern-day schedules, are tremendous.

A 2011 study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that teens who have frequent family dinners are far more likely to have excellent relationships with all of their family members and talk to their parents about problems, and far less likely to smoke, drink, use marijuana or expect to try drugs in the future. Similarly, a 2008 study in Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Social Policy Report found that “shared family mealtimes have been associated with reduced risk of substance abuse, promotion of language development, academic achievement and lower chances for pediatric obesity.

But gathering together over a daily meal gives us the opportunity to focus on our children, treasure their presence and just listen. And it’s an easy, expedient and effective way to establish ethics and values; offer guidance and support; and establish good eating habits.

Yet it’s not just about sitting down together; to reap the benefits of a family meal, everyone must unplug. It’s important to turn off cell phones, computers and the TV and focus on each other. The SRCD study also found that watching TV while eating “disrupts mealtime patterns that may be more supportive of health and wellbeing.” Yet 40 percent of individuals watch TV or video while eating, according to NPD, while 33 % of viewers watch TV during dinner, 27% have it on half the time and 5% text, e-mail or use their cell phones throughout the meal, finds a 2010 CBS News Poll.

We can also use this as a time to teach children good eating habits. Putting a nutritious meal on the table after a busy day isn’t always an easy feat—a truth confirmed by a 2006 Cornell University study showing that many Americans feel they simply don’t have the time to shop, prepare and eat together as families. Some even feel intimidated by the thought of preparing a meal, and opt for bring-in restaurant or fast food.

Growing evidence shows that meals prepared and eaten at home are more nutritious and less likely to cause obesity. For example, a 2008 study on kid’s restaurant meals by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that 93% are too high in calories, 45% are too high in saturated fat and 86% are too high in sodium for children in their target age range. And it’s easy to deal with this dilemma, since the food industry has developed myriad products that are healthy, preservative-free, fresh and convenience-oriented to speed up and even eliminate much of the prep work.

There are many nutritious options, ranging from fully prepared dishes to items that can shave precious moments off prep time. For instance, broths can be the starter for meals in a pot with the addition of fresh vegetables, legumes, pasta, chicken and herbs. And those intimidated or strapped for time can opt for prepared soups and vegetables in sustainable packaging such as our Tetra Recart, a carton that’s has been specifically designed and engineered to hold chunky soups, vegetables, legumes and sauces and is used by innovative food processors worldwide.

The Tetra Recart’s groundbreaking technology took 10 years to develop. These cartons keep the soups shelf-stable without preservatives and not just bring added convenience, but also are space-efficient, energy efficient and recyclable

But bottom line, food isn’t the only part of the equation. A family meal involves a range of shared experiences, from cooking together--which research shows makes kids much more likely to eat what’s served, even if its not something they favor--to building children’s identity, character and citizenship. Family members pass down jokes, stories, thoughts and values and everyone learns how to listen, respect and respond to others opinions, concerns and taste.

The magic that happens over shared meals, or spending time together as a family as much as possible, can help preserve the American family, strengthen all of its members and enrich their lives. I’m sure America’s Republicans and Democrats both agree that more families should be sitting together at dinner.