Between busy work schedules, sports and after-school activities, picky eaters and everything else you have to manage in your life, eating dinner together—or any other meal for that matter—can often take a backseat. Yet research shows there are so many benefits of family meals—and science to back it up.
In our home, gathering around the table and eating dinner together is one of our priorities. Sure, we all love a good meal, but my husband and I also know that eating together with our kids is an old-fashioned family value that helps us stay connected, teach family values and hopefully keep our kids out of trouble when they’re older.
While we’re not together every night—my husband often works nights—and after school commitments can make it tough, we’ve found ways to make it work most nights of the week.
FAMILIES HAVE DINNER TOGETHER, BUT WISH IT WAS MORE OFTEN
Despite our busyness, the good news is that having dinner together is still a priority for many of us.
According to an October 2019 survey by YouGov, 75 percent of families have dinner with all members of their households at least once a week. Among those, 29 percent say they have dinner together every day.
Yet 62 percent of parents with children under 18 admit they’d like to have family dinners “much more often” or “somewhat more often.”
The reason? According to a recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, parents say the interference of after-school sports and other organized activities is responsible for less family meals, more difficulty scheduling meals, and eating more fast food meals.
BENEFITS OF FAMILY MEALS
Studies show the benefits of family meals go above and beyond the food and conversations and can stick with your kids throughout their lives.
1. Your kids are more likely to be healthy eaters
Choosing healthy foods and modeling healthy eating habits are some of the best ways to raise healthy, adventurous eaters.
When children see their parents eating healthy, they’re more likely follow suit.
In fact, an April 2013 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found kids who ate meals with their families consumed more fruits and vegetables (1.5 portions worth) compared to families who never ate together. Even better—kids who had family meals only once or twice a week ate 1.2 portions more.
2. Family meals are associated with a lower risk of childhood obesity, disordered eating
Nearly 30 percent of kids in the U.S. are overweight or obese and despite numerous efforts to address it, not much has changed in recent years.
Along with serving a mostly whole foods diet and encouraging your kids to be active, if there’s one thing you can do at home to ensure your kids gain weight at a healthy rate, it’s to share family meals.
In fact, a 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who eat family meals together at least 3 times a week are more likely to be in a normal, healthy weight range and less likely to engage in disordered eating.
3. Your kids may have better behavior
It probably comes as no surprise that kids who have close family bonds are less likely to go down the wrong path, but research shows family meals in particular, can keep kids on the straight and narrow.
According to a a February/March 2018 study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, kids who shared family meals together had lower levels of physical aggression, oppositional behavior, and problem behaviors such as stealing and lying.
4. Your kids may have a lower risk for anxiety and depression
Sadly, mental illness and suicide rates are on the rise in kids. Although these are complex issues and many factors can increase a child’s risk, one way that may keep your child healthy is to share family meals.
In fact, a January 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found teens who had shared meals with their families 5 or more times a week had fewer symptoms of depression, less emotional difficulties, and better emotional well-being.
5. Teens engage in less risky behaviors
Studies show teens who have family meals are less likely to drink alcohol, use tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs to get high, and engage in sexual activity.
6. Family meals teach healthy habits
Sharing family meals together also teaches kids healthy eating habits like mindful eating and of course, manners.
7. Your kids may get better grades
If you’re concerned about your kid’s grades, gather ‘round the table more often because studies show family meals are associated with better academic performance.
A 2006 study in the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development found that young children learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table compared to 143 from parents who read books aloud to their kids.
8. Family meals create stronger family bonds
Our lives are hectic and we’re not spending nearly as much time with our families as we’d like to. A 2018 study found Americans spend just 37 minutes of “quality” time together during the week.
Yet the more time we spend around the table with our families, the more opportunities we have to share stories, learn from each other, tackle problems, and create stronger family bonds.
In fact, a 2012 survey from the Center On Addiction found teens who have dinners 5 to 7 times a week with their families are more likely to say they have high quality relationships with their parents.
9. Eating meals together saves money
Despite our near-obsession with food and cooking, Americans still spend more money eating out than they do on groceries.
Yet according to this article in Forbes, restaurants mark up their meals on average 300% so eating at home more often can save you money.
HOW TO MAKE FAMILY MEALS A REALITY
Find the time to share family meals together isn’t easy, but it can be done. Here are some tips to make it work for your family.
Who says you have to have dinner together every night? Breakfast, lunch or brunch on the weekends—even snacks count too.
Put it on the schedule
Getting intentional about family meals can help you follow through. Each week, look at the schedule with your family and pencil in times when you can have dinner together. It may be before or after an activity for example, but when you commit to it, it’s more likely to happen.
Stick to the basics
Having a handful of healthy foods on hand will ensure you’ll always be able to quickly whip up a meal. Foods that can help you pull together meals in no time include:
- Salad greens
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Beans and lentils
- Canned salmon, sardines, tuna fish, anchovies, etc.
- Nuts and seeds
- Quinoa, brown rice, couscous, pasta
- Beef/chicken/vegetable broth
- Tempeh and tofu
- Frozen vegetables
- Frozen shrimp
Rely on sheet pan meals and one-pot meals
One of the quickest ways to get a healthy dinner on the table is to look for sheet pan recipes or one-pot recipes. These methods are super-efficient and cut down on clean-up time too.
When your week gets hectic with work, school, after-school activities and other obligations, family meals can easily fall by the wayside.
Yet simply taking an hour or two on the weekends to batch cook vegetables can make it easier. You can also make large batches of meals and freeze them so you’ll always have something ready.