The Big Benefits of Family Meals
- Sean Brotherson, Ph.D., Extension Family Science Specialist and Associate Professor, Department of Child Development and Family Science, NDSU
Sharing the Family Meal
Among the most lasting and powerful traditions in family life is one that seems to have more influence than almost any other – the family meal. Recalling your favorite family experiences usually leads to thinking of such times as the weekly Sunday meal, family mealtimes during Thanksgiving or other holidays, or a Saturday morning breakfast with Mom or Dad. Why are family meals so powerful? Sharing a family meal provides an experience that touches all of our senses – sight, touch, taste, smell and listening to warm laughter or good conversation. Family meals help provide a regular, consistent opportunity to create a shared experience that is meaningful and offers a sense of belonging to all. Research has shown that regular and meaningful family meals offer a large variety of benefits to children and parents.
The Family-centered Meal
Family meals offer the opportunity to connect with each other, communicate about family happenings, and give each other time and attention. While families
are encouraged to share meals, not every meal has to be a sit-down dinner extravaganza. The most important thing about family meals is to make them frequent, fun and family-centered.
Couples or families will benefit more from family meals if they occur more frequently during the week. Typically, research suggests that more than half of families with children in the United States share a meal five or more times a week. A concern, however, is that 30 percent to 35 percent of families often eat less than three meals a week together, which means less time for connecting and communicating. Changes in family life, such as the increase in dual-earner families and the rise in single-parent families, may make eating together frequently more difficult for families. Families, however, should try to set aside regular and consistent family meal opportunities to eat together as often as possible.
Fun also is part of the recipe for a happy family mealtime. Parents and other adults should try to avoid making mealtime a disciplinary occasion when children are reprimanded or given lectures. Instead, save such conversations for a time away from the dinner table, and focus instead on being together in a positive way.
A family-centered mealtime means limiting distractions, especially the TV or computer. Turn such things off at mealtime and use strategies to engage each family member in conversation.
Sharing family meals provides a multitude of benefits to families as a whole. Few family experiences offer such a wide range of benefits through such a simple activity. A few of the many benefits that research has documented that occur for families through sharing family meals are:
- Family meals provide a sense of family unity and identity. Family meals become a vehicle for carrying on valued family traditions, such as having a particularly favorite dish on someone’s birthday or going to a favorite place to eat together on special occasions.
- Family meals give the opportunity to transmit the values and attitudes of a family from one generation to the next. Children can learn from parents and grandparents about what values are important to the family. Also, family meals are a wonderful way to link family members with their cultural and ethnic heritage, as differing foods may reflect the unique cultural traditions or ethnic tastes of a particular family’s background.
- Family meals also furnish a means for daily communication and strengthening family connections. Conversation around the dinner table allows give and take among family members and the chance to cultivate attitudes of patience and respect in communication.
- Family meals give a meaningful opportunity for family members to spend time together and enjoy one another’s company in a relaxed setting. Families should consider how to maximize the time they have together by encouraging positive comments, adjusting meal experiences to the family’s needs, and creating a warm and relaxed setting.
everything from childhood obesity to suicidal thinking to development of language abilities? A few of the many benefits that occur for children through sharing family meals are:
- Family meals allow parents an opportunity to be aware of and monitor their children’s moods, behaviors and activities with friends. This kind of parental monitoring is important
for parents to be able to know what their kids are doing, who they are with, and where and when their activities are taking place.
- Family meals give regular structure and routine to a child’s day. If a child knows that he or she can expect a reliable schedule, it increases his or her sense of security and improves well-being.
- Family meals make a positive impact on young children’s language acquisition and literacy development. Family meals furnish a daily opportunity for a parent or sibling to speak to an infant or toddler, and help them learn words, understand language and build conversation.
- Finally, a striking number of studies give specific and wide-ranging evidence that family meals are an important “protective factor” in the lives of children and teenagers. Family meals are associated with a variety of positive outcomes that improve child well-being. These include a decreased risk of substance use or delinquency, heightened personal and social well-being, and better academic performance.
Another area of benefits that accrue to families through sharing meals is family health. Families who regularly eat together tend to be more healthful in their eating habits and have healthier outcomes. For example, some of the benefits that impact family health through sharing family meals are:
- Family meals furnish a meaningful opportunity to provide a role model for healthy eating. Parents and other adults can help model eating moderate portion sizes, tasting new foods or stopping when full. Also, they can use family mealtimes to encourage courtesy and other social manners that are valued in society.
- Family meals are associated with improved dietary intake among family members. For example, several large studies have shown that regular family meals are strongly associated with increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains and other healthy food choices while also linked with lesser consumption of fried or fatty foods, soft drinks or other less healthy food choices.
- Recent research suggests that family meals are associated with a reduced risk of childhood obesity in children and adolescents.
Enjoy Family Mealtimes
Mary Story and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, two well-known researchers on family meals, make the case that family meals really do matter and bestow a whole range of benefits on family members. They advocate the following:
“Families should be encouraged to make the family meal more of a priority and to try to have at least four family meals per week. It is often easiest for families to eat dinner together, but other mealtimes work as well. Meals can be simple with shared mealtime responsibility among family members. Teaching children the enjoyment of cooking and having them involved in mealtime preparation develop skills they can use for a lifetime. Shared meals can also be extended to friends and neighbors to build a stronger sense of community and help with meal preparation. … Regular family meals are key components of family life that may make a difference in the lives of children and parents.”
(Story, M., and Neumark-Sztainer, D. A perspective on family meals: Do they matter? Nutrition Today, 40 (6), 261-266; 2005 .)