Parents all over ponder this question daily-“What are we going to have for dinner?” Here is an important question to add-“Can we make it a family dinner?”
There is a growing body of social science research showing it not just what you serve for dinner that’s important; it’s who your child eats with as well.
Several researchers have found the following benefits with regular family mealtime. Children who eat meals with their family:
- are less likely to be overweight
- more likely to eat healthy foods-vegetables, fruits and other nutritious food at meal times
- have higher academic achievement
- have fewer problems with truancy and other delinquent behaviors
- improved psychological well-being including higher self-esteem and lower levels of depressive symptoms
- higher quality family relationships with siblings and parents
So how often do you need to have family meals to have the benefit of the above-mentioned findings?
Research data by Musick and Meier (2012) found the number of family meals to strive for is four to five family meals a week. And it’s not just about how often family meals occur, research shows the quality of family interactions at mealtime is also important. Behaviors that detract from the quality of family mealtimes include the television, phones and any other electronics or behaviors which detract from talking and communicating with family members. Research shows the presence of television on while eating has the following impact:
- Children consume fewer fruits and vegetables when watching television
- Children and adults miss satiety cues when watching televisions, meaning you don’t pay attention to your body telling you are full and continue to eat
- Seeing food commercials has been shown to increase one’s consumption of calories
- Television is often turned on during family meals as a way to distract and avoid conflict between family members
- Watching television while eating increased cravings for high sugar high-fat foods
So turn off the television and make the table an electronic free-zone during mealtimes. The following are guidelines regarding family mealtimes:
- Aim to have family meals 4-5 times a week. Families can find dinner time difficult because of parents work or travel schedules and children’s activities, sports and lessons. If family dinners become challenging be flexible and find time to have shared family meals for breakfast, lunch or snacks.
- Aim for family meals to last at least twenty minutes. Take the time to enjoy talking with your family and connecting. Rushing through mealtimes and focusing solely on eating does not have the same benefit to children; it’s both communication and consumption of food that is important.
- Be consistent with family mealtimes. Keeping family mealtimes routine, and part of the scheduled events in a week provides stability, comfort and something for family members to look forward to.
- Limit distractions. Avoid distractions at mealtimes from television, electronics and cell phones.
- Focus on creating quality conversation. Sharing family meals is a great way for family members to connect with one another about details of the day, concerns, or practical scheduling, planning and needs. Talking with family members is also a valuable chance to learn new words, discuss current events and participate in storytelling.
In busy lives, it can be tempting to forgo family mealtime, especially when family members are tired, in conflict with one another and schedules conflict. The benefits of a family meal are not only for children, but also for parents. A study by Brigham Young University found that mothers who worked reported family meals were a significant stress reducer from the demands and tensions of their workday. Fathers reported enjoying family meals, however, the findings were most significant for reducing working moms stress levels.
If you would like to read more about resources helping families create meaningful mealtimes, please check out the following sites:
The Family Dinner Project: A start-up grass-roots movement supporting positive family mealtimes through ideas on food, fun and conversation for families. The site has great information on recipes, ideas for family mealtime conversations starters, games and storytelling. You can go to their site here: TheFamilyDinnerProject.org
Conversation Starters: A fantastic post that went viral in September on Huffington Post; wisdom from a mom and teacher through a list of 25 questions to ask your child about their school day without asking-“So, How Was School Today?” You can find printable versions by going here: SimpleSimonandCo.com
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014
One thought on “Why Family Meals Matter”
When you have multiple family members with special needs and a spouse who has OCD about food and everything has to operate on their mental time frame and around their food cravings, family mealtimes become downright impossible to accomplish. Perhaps I will start just having dinner with the children and excluding the difficult spouse.