One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the shared family meal. The research is incredibly strong and consistent. Benefits include kids who are healthier and definitely happier. Each and every meal shared makes a difference. Here are the top seven reasons why family meals deserve priority status in every household:
1. More Nutrition, Including More Fruits & Veggies
Frequent family meals are associated with more nutritious diets for children, teens, and adults. Meals shared with family are more likely to be balanced and to contain milk products, whole grains, fruits and vegetables (including more nutritious dark green and orange vegetables). They result in significantly higher intakes of protein, fibre, calcium, iron, folate, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, and E. Those who partake in family meals are more likely to meet nutritional needs, especially for nutrients that are typically under-consumed, like fibre, calcium, and iron. Family meals also tend to be lower in calories, and contain less sugar and unhealthy fats. In a study from the University of Minnesota, youth who had family dinners on most days were 30% less likely to consume soft drinks at dinner than those who ate dinner with their families less often. Finally, picky eaters are harder to come by in homes that honour family meals. Shared meals encourage kids to eat slower, to try new foods, and to try a wider variety of foods as well.
2. Healthier Body Weight
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families regularly eat meals together as a strategy to prevent childhood obesity. In a study from Ohio State University involving preschool children, eating regular family dinners (more than 5 dinners weekly), combined with adequate sleep and limited screen time was linked to a 40% lower risk of obesity. In research from the University of Minnesota involving at-risk youth, adolescents who participated in 5 or more weekly family dinners were about 3 times less likely to be overweight as compared to those who reported never eating dinner as a family. Sharing family meals during adolescence also has long term benefits – it lowers the risk of becoming overweight or obese even 10 years later. Family meals are good for the waistline.
3. Better Thinking & Learning
Conversations that take place at family meals really make a difference. They help kids to think better and to achieve greater academic success. A child’s general knowledge and vocabulary expands. When Harvard researchers wanted to know where children learned 2,000 specific words associated with good literacy, they found more than 1,000 of them were picked up at the dinner table (in comparison only 143 words came from parents reading to their kids). Family meals also promote good communication skills, including “explanatory talk” – the ability to ask questions, comprehend, and discuss topics. Not surprisingly, research from the University of Minnesota involving over 4,700 adolescents found that as frequency of family meals increased, so did grade point average.
4. More Happiness & Fewer Problems
Family meals play an essential role in emotional and psychological well-being. Research from McGill University, involving over 26,000 adolescents age 11 to 15, linked each additional dinner shared weekly to better mental health, regardless of gender, age, or family affluence. More frequent family dinners translated into fewer emotional and behavioural problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others, and higher satisfaction with life. Other research has linked family meals to higher self-esteem, lower stress levels, and a reduced risk of depression, including suicidal thoughts. Who knew the family meal could have such power?
5. Protection From Disordered Eating
Disordered or disturbed eating practices, as well as full blown eating disorders are a growing and serious problem among today’s youth. This includes chronic dieting or food restriction, binge eating, self-induced vomiting, and the use of diet pills or diuretics. Increased family meal frequency helps protect against disordered eating, especially for females. In a review of 17 studies by the University of Illinois, teens who participated in five or more family meals per week were 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating. Research from the University of Minnesota found that making family meals a priority, in spite of scheduling difficulties, was the most consistent protective factor for disordered eating (it was more important than having a positive meal atmosphere or a more structured meal environment). Those who participate in family meals are less likely to be dissatisfied with their body. They’re also less likely to have a drive to be thin.
6. Less Risky Behaviour & Defence Against Bullies
Adolescents who participate in regular family meals are less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or to use illicit drugs, including marijuana. They’re also less likely to get into fights or have sex, including unprotected sex or sex with different partners. In addition, based on research from McGill University, involving almost 9,000 students aged 12 to 18 from 49 schools, family dinners help protect adolescents from the harmful consequences of cyberbullying which includes anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, fighting, vandalism, alcohol abuse, and drug use. In this study, kids who had been cyberbullied and shared less than 4 weekly dinners with their family were about 4 times more likely to experience problems due to the bullying. For kids who never participated in family dinners, the risk was 7 times greater. About 1 in 5 adolescents experience online bullying (and that’s significant!).
7. Habits That Last A Lifetime
Habits adopted in childhood are carried into adulthood. Based on research from Belgium, eating breakfast regularly with family during childhood increases the likelihood of sharing breakfast as a student at university (the same goes for dinner). University of Minnesota researchers reported that sharing 6 to 7 meals weekly with family during childhood, also makes it more likely you’ll share frequent meals with your own family as an adult. Could there be a better habit to carry forward? I don’t think so. Pass along the family meal!
Why Are Family Meals So Powerful For Overall Health and Well-being?
• Family meals provide an opportunity for children (and all family members) to be seen and heard. This is critical to our overall happiness, as well as to our sense of identity – “who we are” and what we stand for. It helps us to know that we matter!
• Family meals promote emotional bonding and family cohesion. This is especially important in an increasingly technology-driven world, where children and adults now spend more time connecting to devices than to each other. Shared meals help us to feel less alone. They give us a sense of safety and belonging.
• The family meal is extremely important for parental role modeling. Parents are able to role model core values, as well as good emotional and mental health. Healthy eating habits and good social skills, including good manners can also be show-cased. Good communication skills can be demonstrated as well, including self-expression, listening, questioning, and problem-solving.
• The family meal provides a wonderful opportunity for all family members to relax, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. In this fast-paced world of ours, many families have forgotten how to do this. Isn’t life supposed to be enjoyable and fun?
• Lastly, and most importantly, the family meal is the perfect place to give love, to receive love, and to feel love. Ultimately, that’s what family meals are really all about.
The family meal has incredible power. Benefits for our children include: better food habits and nutritional intake; healthier body weights; enhanced thinking and communication skills; superior mental health, including protection from eating disorders; better lifestyle choices, such as not drinking or doing drugs. It’s a place for parents to role model happiness, health, good communication, and most of all love! Make family meals a top priority in your household.
P.S. Stay tuned for my next blog. It’s about the most common barriers to the family meal and what the ideal family meal looks like!
And hey… if you like this blog, please don’t forget to share it with family, co-workers, and friends!!! Most people know that the family meal matters, but they definitely don’t realize how much.