• Theresa Gentile

7 Reasons Why Family Meals are Important - And Ideas if You're Just Starting Out

Updated: Oct 3

As busy and stressful as life can get, there are so many benefits to having dinner together as a family. From social and emotional development to decreased picky eating and better grades in school, you should try making family meals a priority.



I know what you’re thinking...between work, school, extracurricular activities, friends and meetings, it’s nearly impossible to sit down together as a family and eat. And then there’s the planning, cooking, plating, and cleaning.


I know, I get it.


And this isn’t even taking the current school year into account where your kids may all have different school schedules where you wake up not knowing which day of the week it is or which kid is in cohort A and goes to school on Mondays and Wednesdays. (Or is it Tuesdays and Thursdays??!!)


But every small effort you put into this will pay off. And you’ll find it much easier if you don’t overcomplicate things.


Parents shape a children’s eating environment in so many ways. From the food choices in the home to timing and location of meals and comments around food, parents are children’s primary benchmark of food culture.


What constitutes a family meal anyway?


It’s any meal where some of the family sit down together and eat. It can be breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. And it can be any family member. Maybe your spouse always works late and it’s just you and one child at home. OK...don’t pass up that opportunity to eat together.


Let’s discuss the benefits of eating meals together as a family, why eating dinner together as a family is particularly important for picky eaters, and how to put together easy family meals.


What are the benefits of eating family meals together?


1. Improved mental health


Family connectedness (feelings of love and warmth from parents) has been shown to improve mental health and well-being among teenagers. In females, higher self-esteem has been found with more frequent family meals. Some research points to females benefitting more than males with increased family dinners and with strong family bonds. Adolescence is a crucial time for establishing routines important for mental well-being.


2. Better grades in school


Studies show that children who have more frequent family meals tend to have better grades in school. This might be due to a stronger positive relationship with a parent, increased self-esteem or less TV time.


3. Lower risk of substance abuse and teen pregnancy.


4. Better social skills


Eating dinner together has been shown to increase the quality and frequency of communication. Communication is a skill - where better to learn it than with your family that loves and accepts you for who you are.


5. Overall healthier eating and decreased picky eating


One study found that families, where mothers felt that mealtimes were an opportunity for quality time, had children with healthier diets. Children who sit down to more frequent family meals tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, less saturated fats, sugar, fried food and soda.


For children, eating is typically a social occasion. Children’s food preferences and eating behaviors are influenced by their parents, other adults, peers and siblings, as well as children's observations of others' eating behavior. The whole social atmosphere around eating helps develop a child’s eating patterns.


Children who eat the same foods as their parents are nutritionally better off. And this holds true whether or not children eat meals with their parents or not. Parents do not do their children any favors by creating separate children’s meals when children refuse the family dinner. Just take a look at the children’s meals in restaurants; they are of inferior nutritional quality. I explain some tips below on how to encourage children to eat the same meals as parents.


6. Decreased risk of overweight


There is a general finding that children (and adults, for that matter) who remain at the table until everyone has finished eating have lower BMIs than families who do not. Having meaningful conversations at dinner about their day also correlated with significantly lower family BMIs.


Additionally, eating anywhere other than a kitchen or a dining room is related to higher BMIs and overweight. This is especially true when it comes to eating in front of television.


This makes sense on many levels. For one, eating in front of television is a form of distracted, mindless eating. It also tends to be under less supervision, leading to a lower diet quality.


It seems to be that strong, positive emotions and familial connections take the place of the desire to overeat.


There is one caveat to this, though...parents who try to decrease their child’s energy consumption (especially in females) often find it backfires. Even with the best intentions, parents who try to decrease how much their child eats results in a higher body weight. It can start with mealtime struggles with elementary school-aged children, silence in a pre-teen, and disordered eating as a teenager.


Parental control around food has been found to influence children’s preference for high-fat, energy-dense foods, limit a child’s willingness to try new food and disrupts a child’s internal regulation of hunger and satiety; ie, a child’s own self-control around food. It also encourages the picky eater to continue to be so.


7. Decreased risk of disordered eating


Adolescents who have more family meals have a lower rate of disordered eating including vomiting, laxative use, binge eating, and frequent dieting. This could be due to a stronger parent-child bond, made, in part, by socializing every day at mealtime. (As long as it’s a positive atmosphere.)


Another explanation may be that eating dinner together encourages regular meal consumption, which may prevent disordered eating behaviors.


These are 7 reasons why family meals are so important to children’s development of healthy eating behaviors. Now, how do you do it?


Well, I can’t talk about family meals without mentioning the Division Of Responsibility, which is an evidence-based approach to feeding developed by Registered Dietitian Ellyn Satter.


Division of Responsibility in Feeding


The Division of Responsibility in feeding states that parents determine the what, when, and where of feeding. Children determine how much to eat or whether to eat at all. In this model, a parents’ job is to plan and prepare nourishing, balanced meals at planned times during the day. A child’s job is to determine if they want to eat it and how much to choose.


Letting children serve themselves food is even more advantageous. This puts kids in control of their own hunger and fullness cues. This tells them that you, the parent, trust that they can regulate their own barometers and not be subjected to external pressure around food.


This takes away the struggles at mealtime and creates a positive environment where kids want to imitate adults’ food preferences and will feel empowered to try new foods.

Some tips to start planning family meals:

  1. Have planned meals and snacks during the day

  2. Balance those meals with proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and/or vegetables

  3. Sit down together as often as possible; even if it’s just you and the kids. Or you and one kid.

  4. Turn off the TV

  5. Have positive discussions at mealtime. Can’t think of anything? Try going around the table and asking what the best part of everyone’s day was. Or, with younger children, ask this-or-that questions. (Do you like red apples better or yellow ones? Do you like ice cream more or cake?)

  6. Keep it simple! Don’t overcomplicate things or you won’t want to do it.

Here are some simple family meal ideas:


-Chicken cutlets, broccoli and brown rice

-Taco night with beans/chicken/meat and all the fixings

-Grilled cheese, tomato soup, glass of milk

-Broiled fish and veggies, mashed potatoes

-Turkey burgers on whole grain rolls, baby carrots and hummus

-Tuna sandwiches with apples and celery sticks (Check out some of my tuna sandwich combinations here)



In their article on why family meals are important, The Stanford Children’s Hospital says,

“Mealtime can be looked at as an opportunity or a chore.” I think this is perfect.


Keep meals simple and let the thought go that your child’s entire nutritional well-being is dependent on this meal. Keep all the comments positive - remember, a seat at the family table is a privilege. You might enjoy family meals more than you think.


If you’re not having family meals together right now, what’s stopping you? Let me know!



References:

Brewis A, Gartin M. Biocultural construction of obesogenic ecologies of childhood: parent-feeding versus child-eating strategies. Am J Hum Biol. 2006;18(2):203-213. doi:10.1002/ajhb.20491


Christian MS, Evans CE, Hancock N, Nykjaer C, Cade JE. Family meals can help children reach their 5 a day: a cross-sectional survey of children's dietary intake from London primary schools. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2013;67(4):332–8. doi:10.1136/jech-2012-201604.


Haines J, Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman S, Field AE, Austin SB. Family dinner and disordered eating behaviors in a large cohort of adolescents. Eat Disord. 2010;18(1):10-24. doi:10.1080/10640260903439516


Harrison ME, Norris ML, Obeid N, Fu M, Weinstangel H, Sampson M. Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Can Fam Physician. 2015;61(2):e96-e106.


Litterbach, E.V., Campbell, K.J. & Spence, A.C. Family meals with young children: an online study of family mealtime characteristics, among Australian families with children aged six months to six years. BMC Public Health 17, 111 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3960-6


Schwartz S, Benuck I. Strategies and suggestions for a healthy toddler diet. Pediatr Ann. 2013;42(9):181–3. doi:10.3928/00904481-20130823-09.

Skafida V. The family meal panacea: exploring how different aspects of family meal occurrence, meal habits and meal enjoyment relate to young children's diets. Sociol Health Illn. 2013;35(6):906–23. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12007.


Wansink B, van Kleef E. Dinner rituals that correlate with child and adult BMI. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014;22(5):E91–5. doi:10.1002/oby.20629.


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