Life is different than it used to be, in countless ways. Families are busier with the demands of work and school, extracurricular activities and after-work commitments. When we finally have downtime, there’s a new Netflix show to be binged, hundreds of TikTok videos to be watched, and unread emails needing responses.
With life moving at breakneck speed, who has time to sit down for a family meal? While traditional family meals may seem outdated and unrealistic, they matter more than ever. Research shows that gathering and eating together offers a variety of physical, mental and emotional benefits for children and adults alike.
Physical Health Benefits
• Family meals help children develop better eating habits. Meals prepared at home tend to be more balanced and nutritious than restaurant or take-out food, with more protein, vitamins and fiber, and less saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found a connection between the frequency of shared family meals in adolescence and reduced odds of obesity or weight issues ten years later. The study concluded that families should attempt to gather for at least one or two meals each week to help protect their kids from weight struggles later in life.
• When kids are present at mealtime, parents may eat healthier, perhaps to model good behavior and provide better nourishment for their kids.
• During family meals, people tend to eat slower and talk more, which allows more time for digestion and helps prevent overeating because there is more time to recognize fullness.
Mental & Emotional Health Benefits
• Family meals are the perfect opportunity for parents to catch up, reconnect and find out what’s happening in their children’s lives. Conversation helps parents recognize potential issues their children may be having and facilitate more parental guidance and open communication.
• By encouraging children to talk about their day and genuinely listening to their responses, parents are communicating to their children that they are valued and respected.
• Like routine reading, conversation at the dinner table helps younger children build their vocabulary and enhance social skills such as table manners.
• Children thrive on predictability – knowing what will happen and when. The routine of family meals provides a sense of security and a feeling of belonging.
• For teens, studies have shown that family dinners contribute to higher grades in school, increased self-esteem, and lower risk of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression.
Family Meal Tips
Finding the time as a family to sit down and routinely share meals can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips for making family meals easier:
• Set a schedule for which nights you will all eat together and stick to it.
• If dinners are too difficult, try family breakfasts or lunches.
• Plan and shop for food once weekly. Having food on hand saves time and energy.
• Involve the family in planning meals. Take the kids shopping and encourage them to choose what items they’d like to eat.
• Keep meals simple. A slow cooker can be your best friend!
• Double or triple portions and freeze food for busy nights.
• Share the responsibilities: food prep, table-setting and clean-up. Rotate the tasks.
• Give yourself grace. An occasional fast-food meal or TV dinner to save your sanity won’t hurt anyone.
Remember, it’s less about what’s on the table than who’s at the table. Your children may not remember what they ate, but they will remember the memories of being together.
No phones invited!
Whether you are dining with your family or friends, sitting alongside colleagues or on a date, your cell phone is not welcome at the dinner table. Focusing on your phone sends a message to your company that you’re not interested in having a conversation and enjoying a meal with them.
In addition, your cell phone is covered in germs. Imagine how many times you touch your cell phone after touching something else (think public handrails, your money, a stranger’s hand), or think of all the surfaces you have set it down on. While you might wash your hands often, you probably rarely disinfect your phone, if ever. Having your phone at the dinner table, or using it while eating, means you are contaminating your meal with germs.
For your health and happiness, keep your phone off the table; better yet, turn it off or put it in a place you won’t be tempted to check every ding or ring. The value of sharing a meal and being truly present and invested in the people and conversations at the table are far too valuable to miss.