Family meals are becoming less and less of a priority for busy families. Everyone is doing their own thing or has something to watch or someone is at work or sports or it’s too stressful to sit and feed a difficult eater. The list really goes on and on. And it may seem like, what’s the big deal, as long as everyone is fed, right? Well, in fact family meals are so important for our kids. They are beneficial for our kids nutrition, but also for other areas of their health as well. I’m going to share with you what science says about the benefits of family meals.
Benefits of Family Meals for Kids
Simply being together and sharing a meal can create stronger connection with your kids. Sometimes the busy days lead into rushed meals and on to the next task, or no meal at all together. A family meal should be a time to talk about our days, find out what’s going on with our kids and really enjoy being together. Kids who eat family meals have better relationships with their families.
Language Skills and Academics
This is a very important benefit for our kids. Research has found that for young children, dinnertime conversations boosts vocabulary more than being read to out loud. Parents always say that kids hear everything and pick up on everything! We usually are referring to things we don’t want them to say, but it’s a good reminder that having meaningful conversation with big words will also be learned. And for older kids, they are more likely to excel in school when they grow up in homes where family dinners are routine. It’s been found to be a better predictor of high achievement than even doing homework.
Kids who eat regular family meals have better diet quality, meaning more fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals with less undesirable foods like fried foods and sodas. Many of the studies on fruit and vegetable intake as related to family meals has been done with preschoolers, showing a significant difference in fruit and vegetable intake for those preschoolers who ate family meals. These more desirable food choices are likely related to another finding which is lower rates of obesity in kids who have regular family meals. But I will add that it isn’t simply the presence of healthier foods at a dinner table that is leading to these benefits, it also likely has to do with the environment itself. Creating healthy relationship around food is an important piece of lifelong healthy eating habits and diet quality. So keeping in mind, that dinners should be enjoyable, with parents less controlling and more warm and permissive.
Mental and Emotional Health
As rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are on the rise in children, it’s valuable to consider that the routine of sitting down for a family meal may be beneficial.
Studies have shown that kids who eat family meals have higher self-esteem, and a greater sense of resilience. Teens also have a greater life satisfaction regardless of family economics. Less physical aggression and oppositional behavior. There is even a study on family meals potentially being protective against the harmful effects of cyberbullying. There is also a lower risk for depression and suicide attempts.
Decease in High Risk Behaviors
Regular family meals lower the risk of many high risk behaviors including smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, disordered eating and sexual activity.
Barriers and Solutions
Since we now can likely agree that family meals are important, I want to share with you some ways to bring down barriers to family meals. While I understand that some families may be in a harder situation socioeconomically, I also think there are some strategies and mindset shifts that can benefit all to make family meals more attainable. And a reminder, that every family can choose to implement family meals in a way that fits their lifestyle and culture. These are just some tips to help you find what works for you and your family.
Parent work Schedules
It’s true some parents work multiple jobs or swing shifts. Being away at dinner time can make having a family dinner challenging.
Try This —> Start with 1 or 2 nights you may be home with your family to enjoy a dinner together. Or maybe you can all eat breakfast together and that is the time to sit, talk and connect.
Kids in Sports
I am entering this phase myself, so I can attest that it is a challenge. Every night a different schedule. Kids may be hungry early or need to eat late when they get home.
Try This —> Have a schedule for the week, knowing which nights are sport nights. Will everyone be home to have a late dinner? Can you squeeze in an early dinner? Put some thought into it at the start of the week. For the days everyone is gone all day and walking in the door late, can you have something going in the crockpot? Can you make extra a night earlier in the week to have left overs that night? And if those ideas just will not work on that particular night, grab take-out, but sit and eat together.
Too Hard to Throw Something Together at Dinnertime
When days are long and busy and you get home or walk into the kitchen at 5:30 and wonder what am I going to make? You start looking in the fridge, kids run in saying they are starving so they grab a snack or something they can quickly heat up, and you do the same or maybe make something a little later for you and your spouse. I know meal planning can seem overwhelming, but if you can get past that, I have some tips for you.
Try This —> Just start with planning 2 easy dinners. Write down all the ingredients you will need. When you grocery shop, at least once a week, buy everything you need for those 2 dinners. You don’t have to choose the day, but during the week when you don’t have something else going on or a plan you can grab everything you need for that meal and get going. It will be easier mentally to go through making something that you find easy, have the ingredients for and don’t have to think about too much. If time is an issue, try to plan a crockpot meal or order some fast prep meal kits. As 2 meals seems manageable, increased the amount of meals planned for the week. I like to plan 5, to leave wiggle room if we end up going out, wanting take-out, or wanting to make something different.
Everyone Wants Something Different
Is this your house? Dad makes his own meal, you make something different for all the kids then throw something together for yourself. Because of the timing you all eat at staggered times. I’m not going to get into the problems with short order cooking, but only to encourage moving away from it. But to cut down on prep time and get everyone to the table to enjoy time together here’s some things that might work.
Try This —> Decide on some meals to make as a family. I would say aim for 3 dinners. Maybe each family member gets to pick the dinner, or each family member gets to pick a part of every meal. That way everyone gets something they like. Invite your kids to help with the preparation, which gets them more interested and invested in the meal.
Family meals should not be complicated, but sometimes it just requires a little mindset shift and change in routine. Once a new routine is established, it will become the norm. With so much benefit to family meals, it’s something I am super passionate about, especially when families want help making healthier choices for their kids. This is the foundation of where those habits start. With Thanksgiving and other holidays around the corner, many may be eating meals together as a family more than the rest of the year. This may just be that time to make it a new routine. And if nothing else it is a wonderful time to enjoy eating as a family!
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