Experts agree. One of the most important things you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them. These ten science-based reasons, all supported by the American College of Pediatricians, demonstrate the many benefits of the family meal.
1. FAMILY DINNERS MEAN BETTER FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS: Eating meals together has the potential to strengthen family bonds. Often, mealtime is the only time when all family members are together in one place. It provides children a shared, safe space to discuss ideas within the understanding company of family, and parents a routine time to connect with their kids. Older children and teenagers prefer eating together as a family. In a recent Columbia University study, 71% of teenagers said they consider talking, catching-up, and spending time with family members as the best part of family dinners.
2. FAMILY DINNERS LEAD TO HEALTHIER FOOD CHOICES: A 2000 survey found that the 9-14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently consumed more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of key nutrients like calcium, iron, and fiber — and fewer trans fats. Matthew W. Gillman, MD, the survey’s lead researcher, noted that family dinners allow for both “discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods.” The nutritional benefits keep paying dividends even after kids grow up: young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.
3. FAMILY DINNERS BOOST LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: Researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. Young children learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks. Children with a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
4. FAMILY DINNERS BOOST TEENS’ ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE: Studies reveal a consistent association between family dinner frequency and academic performance. For example, a report by CASA found that teens who have between five and seven family dinners per week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than 2 times a week.
5. FAMILY DINNERS ARE A CHANCE TO EXPLORE NEW FOODS: Family meals have proven to be perfect opportunities for parents to expose children to different foods and expand their tastes.
6. FAMILY DINNERS LEAD TO GREATER HAPPINESS: Research examining 5,000 teenagers has shown that when children eat with their parents regularly, they are more likely to be emotionally strong and have better mental health. Teens who ate regular family meals were also more likely to be adjusted, and have good manners and communication skills. This effect is not restricted to the children – mothers who ate with their families often were also found to be happier and less stressed as compared to mothers who did not.
7. HOMEMADE MEALS PROMOTE PORTION CONTROL: The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal. Combine the fact that portions served in restaurants are continuing to expand with that fact that when we’re presented with more food, we’re more likely to eat more food, and it becomes clear that eating at home is simply healthier.
8. FAMILY DINNERS RELIEVE STRESS: If you have a demanding job, finding time to eat with your family may actually leave you feeling less stressed. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM employees and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office.
9. EATING AT HOME SAVES MONEY: In 2007, the average household spent $3,465 on meals at home, and $2,668 on meals away from home, according to the national Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Per meal, that’s about $8 per meal outside of the home, and only about $4.50 per each meal made in your own kitchen.
10. FAMILY DINNERS PROTECT ADOLESCENTS FROM NEGATIVE, HIGH-RISK BEHAVIORS. Research cited in “The Benefits of the Family Table,” a 2014 report from the American College of Pediatricians, suggests that teens who have regular dinners with their family (3 or more/week) have a decreased risk of drug, alcohol, and nicotine use. In addition, they had decreased access to prescription drugs, decreased likelihood that friends use drugs, and were less likely to engage in sexual activity.
The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, champions family dinner as an opportunity for family members to connect with each other through food and conversation. Its founder, Dr. Anne K. Fishel, is a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. She’s also the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. Dr. Fishel recently told the Washington Post, “As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me.” Below – her responses to questions about enhancing family mealtimes
We’re all so busy. How can we find the time to cook and eat together? Time is the most significant obstacles to families gathering for dinner, but so is thinking that the meal has to be cooked from scratch, made with organic ingredients, and labored over for hours. Quick, easy meals are just as good as gourmet ones. The main benefits come when the food arrives at the table and everyone can spend time together.
What if it is take-out? If the meal is eaten with conversation and storytelling, that is what makes a family dinner. The only caveat is that a take-out dinner may not have the same nutritional value as a home-cooked meal, since restaurant food tends to be higher in fat, salt, and sugar.
What if the TV is on? Research suggests that kids tend to eat more calories and fewer vegetables and fruits when the TV is on. Making a steady diet of eating family dinners in front of the TV would certainly interfere with the pleasures and benefits of conversation. But, when a family occasionally watches a TV program during dinner, or watches the news together, that can lead to conversations beyond what went on at school today.
What if we can only pull off having dinner once a week but the research says that it should be five times a week? Should we just forget about it? No! Often when families have one great meal or one “good enough” meal, they find that they want to have more of them. Even one positive dinner a week can be very beneficial to a family.
Does it have to be dinner? In any week, there are at least 16 possible times for families to eat together—7 breakfasts, 7 dinners, and two weekend lunches. In addition, a night-time snack when parents and children take a break together and eat fruit and hot chocolate, for example, can be another chance to connect and laugh together. The goal is not to achieve a magic number but to find as many opportunities as you can and to make the most of them.
Follow the link to the Family Dinner Project website for cooking tips, healthy recipes, ideas to enhance dinnertime conversations, and mealtime game and activity ideas.
“How to Have a Healthy Family Table” Patient Handout – Suggestions from the American College of Pediatrics to help you create a healthy family table in your home.