Liz's Blog for a Healthier, Happier Life

The Incredible Power of the Family Meal

Over the last few decades, shared family meals have been declining, primarily due to the crazy, busy schedules of both parents and kids.  Then came Covid-19 and life as we knew it came to a halt.  What emerged, however, has been an incredible opportunity for parents and their children, to prepare and share the family meal.  The benefits for all are enormous.  Here’s why:

Family Meals are Nutritionally Superior

Based on a review of 57 studies, involving over 200,000 participants, frequent family meals result in significantly better nutritional health.  This holds true for both younger and older children, whether a family eats breakfast, lunch, or dinner together, and whether meals are shared with one parent or the whole family.  

Family meals are generally more nutritionally dense and contain higher quantities of much-needed nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fibre.  Overwhelmingly, these meals also result in higher intakes of fruits and vegetables.  This is especially important, as so many children today (and adults!), continue to fall short of the recommended guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake.  Remember – fruits and vegetables are superheroes for your health, they should make up the largest proportion of your diet, and half your plate should be filled with them. 

As for those foods we need to limit or avoid, such as sugar-sweetened drinks, fast food, convenience foods, and sweets – they are much less likely to show up at the family meal. 

Family Meals Promote Healthier Waistlines

Numerous health organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American College of Pediatricians, consider family meals an important strategy for the prevention of childhood obesity.  This was demonstrated in the “Growing Up in Scotland” study, which involved almost 3,000 children, followed from age 4 to age 10.  Researchers found that those children who were less likely to eat meals sitting down at a table with their family, and more likely to eat their main meal in an informal setting (not in a dining area, not at a table, and generally involving a screen of some type), were at the highest risk of experiencing significant, ongoing weight gain and becoming overweight or obese by age 10.

Family Meals Help Prevent Disordered Eating & Eating Disorder Development

Eating disorders are highly prevalent worldwide, especially in females.  Their incidence has more than doubled over the last decade.  Frequent family meals, however, can play an important role in their prevention.  In Project EAT, a research study involving over 2,500 adolescents from 31 different schools in Minnesota, females who reported eating five or more family meals per week were significantly less likely to take part in extreme weight control behaviours. 

Overall, studies have found that those who participate regularly in family meals are less likely to engage in meal skipping, emotional eating, binge eating, chronic dieting, and self-induced vomiting.  They are also less likely to take diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics.  In addition, those who regularly share meals with their family, are more likely to enjoy their meals, feel better about their body, and be more responsive to internal body cues, including those that tell them when they have had enough to eat. 

Family Meals Reduce the Use & Harm Caused by Social Media

Research from many different countries demonstrates a strong link between social media use by children, teens, and young adults, and poor psychological health, including a higher risk of depression.  In a U.K. study, involving over 2,200 teens and young adults (age 16 to 21), however, those who participated in more family meals, were significantly less likely to be heavy users of social media.  In addition, regular family meals appeared to reduce the harm caused by time spent online.  In contrast, heavy users of social media that never participated in family meals, were found to be especially vulnerable to the detrimental impact of social media use.  Researchers believe that the “sense of belonging” we get from family meals, reduces the need to get that belonging elsewhere.

Another benefit of the shared family meal relates to cyberbullying, which is a growing and significant problem today.  In a U.S. study, involving over 18,000 students (age 12 to 18) from 49 schools in the mid-west, regular family dinners were found to help protect against the emotional and psychological harm that results from cyberbullying.   

Family Meal Benefits Both Parents & Kids

In addition to reducing the risk of disordered eating, as well as the harm caused by social media, the family meal provides a plethora of benefits for overall mental health and happiness.  In a Canadian study involving over 26,000 adolescents, compared to having no dinners together to sharing meals 7 nights a week, each additional dinner consumed as a family was linked to significantly better mental health.  More frequent family dinners resulted in fewer behavioural problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others, and a higher satisfaction with life overall.  These benefits were not dependent on the age or gender of the child, or the family income.  Researchers were surprised to find such consistent effects on every outcome they studied. 

Other research links more frequent family meals to lower levels of cigarette smoking, alcohol and marijuana use, illegal drug use, physical aggression, delinquency, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and risky sexual behaviour.  In addition, the shared family meal often results in higher levels of self-esteem and overall fitness, as well as better grades, language development, and social skills. 

Lastly, family meals are not only good for kids!  Research involving almost 900 parents from the Project EAT study, found that those who regularly share meals with their children have better social and emotional well-being, including higher self-esteem, as well as lower levels of depression and stress.  Family meals are good for everyone!!!

Optimize Your Family Meal with These Top Six Tips

Here are six research-based guidelines to help you maximize the potential benefits of the family meal: 

  1. Get your kids into the kitchen.  Have them help with meal preparation and teach them how to cook.  This greatly improves the nutritional quality of their diet, including the likelihood that they will eat more fruits and vegetables.  It also provides them with invaluable skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.
  • Eat most meals at the kitchen or dining room table and without any screens (television and phones).  Watching television during meals, for example, has been found to negate many of the benefits associated with frequent family meals.
  • Prepare meals with primarily healthy, less processed, food ingredients.  Don’t forget to include dark green vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, kale, or asparagus.  Even though family meals generally contain more vegetables, the dark green ones are not finding their way to the table as often as they should.  Remember – dark green vegetables are superstars when it comes to health and kids learn to eat what they are served.  Fruit is highly recommended as the dessert of choice.
  • All parents in the household should be role models for healthy eating.  It’s one of the strongest factors influencing what your child will or will not eat (including those dark green veggies!).
  • Create a positive, caring mealtime atmosphere.  Parents are responsible for putting a variety of healthy foods on the table.  Kids get to choose what and how much they eat.  Allow family members to share what’s going on in their life, how they are feeling, and what is important to them.  One of the most powerful human needs is to be “seen and heard”.  Allow this need to be fulfilled at the family meal.
  • Avoid all “weight talk” or “body talk” at the table (and elsewhere!).  This includes any talk about dieting, weight loss, or comments about anyone’s body shape or size, including your own.  These types of conversations generally promote body dissatisfaction and an unhealthy relationship with food.  If you want to talk to your kids about why healthy eating is important, focus on how healthy foods can boost their energy levels, strengthen their immune system, reduce their risk of disease, and significantly protect their mental health, including a lower risk of depression. 

Bottom Line: 

Family meals should be a priority in every household.  They promote better nutritional health, healthier waistlines, lower the risk of disordered eating, decrease the harm caused by social media, and provide a multitude of mental health benefits for both parents and kids.

References:

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Dallacker, M., et al.  “The frequency of family meals and nutritional health in children: a meta‐analysis.” Obesity Reviews. 2018 May; 19(5): 638-653.

Elgar, F., et al.  “Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners.” JAMA Pediatrics. 2014 Nov;168(11):1015-22.

Elgar, F., et al.  “Family Dinners, Communication, and Mental Health in Canadian Adolescents.”  J Adolesc Health. 2013 Apr;52(4):433-8.

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Author:

I’m a registered dietitian with a passion for peanut butter sandwiches and an undying love for chocolate. I’ve been researching, writing, and speaking about eating for optimal health for over 25 years. I have two wonderful daughters, love hiking year-round, and playing hockey in the winter. Perhaps, most importantly, I never let a good dance song go to waste!

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