The Science of Family Meals
Dr. Maria E. Rivera
There’s a lot of good data out there about family meals! In this article Dr. Maria unpacks the research and gets real about how to make family meals happen.
What is a family meal?
Family meal time means something different for each family. If we get real with a definition, a family meal is when one or more adults sit down to eat with children. Usually those adults are caregivers or parents, but it doesn’t have to be. In my family, my husband works really long hours and a lot of weekends, and he often gets home for dinner after our son, Zayn, has already gone to bed. A family meal for us usually means just Zayn and I sitting down for dinner, usually eating the same food. Zayn is 21 months old and speaks his own language. So, when the stars align, the three of us are home and awake and we sit together. In real life, this happens about one lunch or dinner during the week.
Why bother with family meals?
Family meals have lots of benefits, particularly for teenagers, and there is data to prove it. Here are my favorite benefits for kids that have family meals. They:
- Are less likely to experience disordered eating;
- Have lower rates of alcohol and substance use;
- Have lower rates of violent behavior;
- Are less likely to feel depressed or have suicidal thoughts;
- Have increased self esteem;
- Have better success in school; and
- Are less likely to be obese, especially when the mood is warm and positive.
Family meals also teach your children how to eat. This is when they learn table manners, try new foods, and generally eat more nutritious foods. Kids watch what you do and copy it. (Sometimes this is very annoying!) But there is lots of data to connect family meals with adventurous eating!
How can you make it work?
Ready to take it on? Here are some tips for you to try to get the family-meal thing started:
- Plan ahead: Plan your meals or make a couple of one-pot meals that will make lots of leftovers so you don’t have to cook every night. This may make it more likely for you to make it to the table together, especially on busy nights.
- There’s a social element: Even if everyone is not eating at the same time, pull up a chair and sit down with your children anyways. Chat with them about their day or play silly games.
- Holiday meals = choices: If you happen to be celebrating a holiday during this time of year, there will probably be many dishes on the table. Have your children help themselves with what they want to eat (even toddlers can point or say yes/no!). Try to resist making a separate meal for kids. Even if they only end up eating rolls for dinner, enjoy the time you are sitting together and engage them in conversation. I love talking to Zayn when he babbles.
- Make weekend lunches a thing: Weekends are easier! (Well, easier than weeknights.) Try weekend meals because it can be a great time to check in.
- Try a late night snack: A bowl of fruit before bedtime as a family can be a great way to catch up, too! Fruit may be ambitious, so do what you have to do to get people at the table.
- Ditch technology: turn off the TV and take the iPads and phones off the table. This is the time to be together and for kids to learn to eat without distractions. Family meals don’t have to be long! A toddler often can’t sit for more than 10 minutes, so make them technology free.
- Don’t be intimidated and be realistic. Eating together as a family of three every night is impossible right now for my family. But, hey, eating together once or twice a week is definitely doable. And I love it.
Bottom line: Just give it a try
You don’t have to go from never eating together to eating together at every meal. Not gunna happen! What you can do is try to eat together once a week and take it from there. Small changes make a big impact. And hey, once that is a routine, you can always take on a bit more.