Family Meals for Improved Nutrition, Health and MoreLast updated: Jul 28, 2015
According to the Purdue University Center for Families, 80% of families value eating meals together, but only 33% do so on a regular basis.1 Parents complain that extended work hours, a long commute, kids’ activities and a busy family schedule prevent eating meals together.2 Yet research over the past 15 years clearly shows several benefits of routinely eating family meals. Summer is a perfect time to start eating meals together and take advantage of less hectic schedules and longer daylight hours.
Benefits of eating family meals
Improved academic success
Dinnertime conversation boosts language skills and vocabulary in young children more than being read to, and a larger vocabulary is associated with higher academic performance. Also, children who eat meals with their families do better on achievement tests and in school. In one study, adolescents who ate family meals five to seven times each week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.3
Lower risk of substance abuse
According to Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), teens who eat dinner with their parents twice a week or less are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana, and nearly twice as likely to drink alcohol as those who eat dinner with their parents six or seven times a week.3
Greater sense of resilience
In a study with over 18,000 students age 12-18, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular dinners with their family. The authors believe that increased family contact and communication help protect adolescents from harmful consequences of cyberbullying.4
Improved social skills and connections
During family meals children learn social skills and manners, how to take turns, be polite, and have pleasant conversations with peers and adults. According to CASA surveys, teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to be emotionally content, work hard at school, and have positive peer relationships. Children and teens who eat meals with their families have stronger family ties and a greater sense of identity and belonging.
Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) involved nearly 5,000 middle and high school students of diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and found that family meals were associated with improved intakes of fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, protein, iron, fiber, and vitamins A, C, E, B-6 and folate. Adolescents who eat meals with their families also have a lower intake of soft-drinks and snack foods that provided added sugars and little to no essential nutrients.5
Lower rates of obesity
A 10-year follow-up study of 2200 adolescents showed that overall 51% were overweight and 22% obese. Among those who reported never eating family meals, 60% were overweight and 29% obese. However, of the teens who reported eating at least one or two family meals per week, 47-51% were overweight and 19-22% obese. The authors believe that family meals may be protective against obesity or overweight because coming together for meals may provide opportunities for emotional connections among family members, the food is more likely to be nutritious, and parents may model healthy eating.6
Six simple ways to eat together as a family this summer, and extending into the Fall
- Family mealtime doesn’t have to be dinner. Breakfast, lunch, or brunch on weekends are times when families can come together to eat a meal. During the summer, pack breakfast or lunch to eat together outside or at the park, or plan on a mid-afternoon snack together to take advantage of less hectic schedules.
- Instead of a complex, gourmet meal, plan simple meals that everyone can enjoy. Encourage your kids to help you prepare the meal, and you’ll spend even more quality time together as your children learn cooking skills. Or put together a cold meal that’s perfect for hot summertime weather: sandwiches on whole grain bread, fresh fruit, and crunchy raw vegetables make a perfect lunch or dinner.
- Plan a fun family activity around mealtime. Enjoy a picnic lunch, go outside for a walk together after dinner, plan a family movie night following dinner, or set aside one weekend morning for a family breakfast in your pajamas.
- Make family meals enjoyable with fun conversation and a light atmosphere. Save discipline for other times and keep the mealtime focus lighthearted.
- Include extended members of your family, neighbors, or family friends regularly at meals to give your children additional opportunities to interact with others and form stronger social bonds. Plan a potluck lunch or dinner at a park, or invite everyone over for a barbecue, with each family contributing a salad or fruit-based dessert.
- Use the “What’s Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl” online interactive tool for ideas on healthy meal planning, cooking and grocery shopping. The site has a searchable database of healthy, family-friendly recipes.
- Promoting Family Meals. Purdue University Center for Families http://www.cfs.purdue.edu/CFF/promotingfamilymeals/ accessed 7-14-15
- Promoting family meals: a review of existing interventions and opportunities for future research. Dwyer, L, Oh A, Patrick H, Hennessey E. Dove Press June 2015 Volume 2015:6 pages 115-131. http://www.dovepress.com/promoting-family-meals-a-review-of-existing-interventions-and-opportun-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-AHMT#T2
- The Importance of Family Dinners IV. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. September 2007. file:///C:/Users/Lynn/Downloads/The-importance-of-family-dinners-IV.pdf accessed 7-14-15
- Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners. Elgar, Frank J et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(11):1015-1022
- Family meals and adolescents: what have we learned from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens)? Neumark-Sztainer D, Larson NI, Fulkerson JA, Eisenberg ME, Story M. Public Health Nutr. 2010 Jul;13(7):1113-21.
- The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations. Berge, J. et al. Journal of Pediatrics. February 2015. Volume 166, Issue 2, Pages 296-301.