Why the family meal is important for connection and wellbeing

Sharing meals together grows happier, healthier children.

We all know that families should eat together, but sometimes it’s tough to find the time. Work, school, sports practices and other obligations all seem to get in the way. But studies show that families who dine at home together are happier and healthier. Whether your family mealtime happens every night or only once a week, in the morning before school or late at night just for dessert, it’s important to take advantage of whatever opportunity you have to nourish the mind, soul and stomach of everyone at the table. Keep reading for some fresh ideas for planning family meals, keeping everyone healthy, sparking meaningful conversations and taking the stress out of the family table.

Tip: The key is togetherness, not timing.

Why it matters

In the United States, about 70 percent of meals are consumed outside the home and about 20 percent are eaten in the car. About half of American families rarely have family dinner, according to Harvard University’s Family Dinner Project. Kiwi families are doing a little better, with a 2018 study suggesting 56 percent of families had dinner together at least five times a week.

Decades of research have shown that children who regularly eat dinner with their families at home do better on a number of health measures. When kids eat with their parents, they are more likely to have:

  • More fruits and vegetables, fewer soft drinks.
  • Lower rates of obesity as both children and adults.
  • Higher self-esteem and a more positive outlook.
  • Lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, school behavioural problems and depression.
  • A better body image and fewer eating disorders.
  • Better grades, higher reading scores and a better vocabulary.

Pick a meal

You have more chances than you realise to connect with your family at the table. During the work week, most families have two opportunities a day to dine together (breakfast and dinner) and three chances (breakfast, lunch and dinner) on the weekends. That gives us a total of 16 meal opportunities a week to connect with our families. Anne Fishel, a Harvard Medical School associate clinical professor of psychology and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, says the goal should not be to hit some magic number for family meals, but to find as many dining opportunities together as possible and make the most of them.

“When I work with families, I tell them, ‘How about having one great meal or one good-enough meal, and see where that takes you?’” says Anne. “The secret sauce of family dinner is the conversation, the games and the fun at the table.”

Pros and cons for family meal options

Breakfast

PROS: Morning is often the only time everyone is together, and kids love breakfast food. A study of 8000 children in Europe showed that kids who ate breakfast with parents five or more days a week were 40 percent less likely to be overweight than their peers.

CONS: Mornings can be rushed. (Harvard’s Family Table Project estimates that many families only have about 10 minutes for breakfast). Kids may be sleepy and not as engaged in conversation.

Lunch

PROS: Usually simple and faster; great for picnics.

CONS: Just two chances a week for most working families. This is the only family meal with a potential negative – studies show that children who eat daily lunch with parents are more likely to be overweight.

Dinner

PROS: Longest meal of the day (about 22 minutes) and a good time to catch up on the events of the day.

CONS: Hard for working parents to get home in time to cook. For teens, homework and sporting conflicts interfere with dinner time.

Weekend meals

PROS: More time to prepare food and fewer scheduling conflicts.

CONS: TV (especially sports) may be more tempting. Kids may have less to say about school.

Extended snack

PROS: Great option when one parent can’t be home for full dinner; use this time for games or conversation.

CONS: Adds extra calories to the day. Your time at the table will be shorter than a regular meal.

Just dessert

PROS: Kids love dessert so they will definitely show up. Best to serve fruit at least some of the time.

CONS: Risk of extra calories and sugaring-up kids before bedtime.

The sweet spot

Family researchers emphasise that there isn’t a magic number for family meals. But they do note that the benefits increase with every meal, so the more times you can gather as a family, the better. Every time parents sit down with their kids, it creates another opportunity to connect, and strong family connections appear to keep teens healthier and safer in a number of areas. Remember, the family table is not just about dinner – you have 16 opportunities a week to connect over a traditional meal and you can always gather at the table for just a snack or dessert.

“If you’re not having family meals at all, start by doing it once a week and make it really easy,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor and head of the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. “You can have sandwiches, or you can put out carrot sticks and hummus. I think sometimes people think if they’re going to eat together it needs to be a big, home-cooked meal. Make it simple in terms of what will work for your current situation.”

Science can offer additional guidance to help you assess where your family falls in the spectrum of potential benefits. In 2012, the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University surveyed 1003 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 (493 boys and 510 girls) about their relationships with their parents. The more times a week a teen sat down for a family meal, the more likely he or she reported having high-quality relationships with parents.

illustration of people eating spaghetti and salad
IMAGE: GETTY

Getting started

Here are some simple strategies from the experts for increasing the time you spend having meals together.

Keep it simple

Give yourself a break. Family meals don’t have to be elaborate. “I believe the magic can happen without perfection,” says Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Come together and enjoy each other’s company, and manage to have a great meal. It’s about creating the space to let it happen.”

Start small

Don’t try to go from one or two meals a week to seven meals overnight. Look at your family’s schedule for the week and try to find just one mealtime that works for your family. Let everyone know and add your plans to the calendars of all the adults and teens in the house.

Set one goal

Don’t try to do everything at once. Look at your family and decide what your needs are. If it’s more family table time, try to find one extra meal that works. If you have picky eaters, focus on strategies to help everyone eat more healthily. (You can find more tips on this over the page.) If your problem is tension at the dinner table, focus on conversation starters and games to keep everyone happy and engaged.

Be flexible

If both parents can’t be home at the same time for dinner, or if sports practices get in the way, plan your table time for later in the evening around a family snack or late-evening dessert.

Keep it light

The family table should be a fun, welcoming space. It’s not a place for stress, arguments and grilling kids about their grades.

Stay home

Family time at a restaurant is better than no family meal time at all, but the reality is that meals eaten outside the home are almost always less healthy.

What counts as a family meal?

Many families make the mistake of waiting for the perfect time to gather as a family. But families aren’t perfect and most of the time, your meal won’t be perfect either. Working parents, unconventional families, single-parent homes, parents who do shift work, working teenagers and kids who play sports all have to navigate conflicts that get in the way of the family meal. Here are some ideas for making mealtimes work for all kinds of families.

Solo parents

Often the family table only has one adult. Divorced and single parents have different dinner planning challenges from married parents. Sometimes one parent has to leave for work early, come home late or be away on business, leaving another parent to manage the family meal. Remember that a successful family table is one that results in family connection, healthy food and fun conversation. One adult at the table is better than none.

Small families

One-child families, particularly when there is only one parent, can feel lonely at the family table. Eating meals with your child as often as possible still counts as a family meal, but consider joining another family from time to time to add a little extra noise and conversation to your family table.

Caregivers

Sometimes an older sibling or a caregiver is in charge of feeding the kids at night. You can still get the benefits of a family meal by making sure healthy food is served, and asking the caregiver to create a fun meal or suggest games or conversation starters that will allow children and teens to connect with each other and their caregiver.

Late-night table time

Some families simply can’t make the schedule work for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Kids have sports practices, parents may have to work late. When a family meal is simply impossible, think about a late-night chocolate milk or hot cocoa moment where everyone can spend a few minutes catching up or sharing a simple moment from the day.

Family dinners are strongly linked to lower rates of teen substance abuse. Based on this research, here are some numbers to think about.

0-2 meals a week: Family researchers are most concerned about families that drop below eating three meals together a week. These children are less likely to report good relationships with parents and are at higher risk for substance abuse and being overweight.

3 meals a week: Three days a week is the point where researchers begin to notice positive trends in a child’s nutritional and emotional health.

5 – 7 meals a week: The Columbia study identified five to seven meals a week
as the point where the greatest benefits in teen and family health were seen. While every extra meal with your family is a good thing, you get the most benefit at about seven meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner) together a week.

Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award- winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.


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