- Category: Nutrition, Experts, Mental Health
- Read Time: 9 Minutes
My parents were so incredibly busy when I was a child. They worked opposite shifts (1st and 3rd) to reduce childcare costs and had 3 kids to wrangle by the time I came along. No matter how busy they got, they almost always made time for family meals. While there are many parenting and other environmental factors that likely contribute to this, I can’t help but attribute these family meals to part of why my siblings and I have all been resilient throughout our lives.
In one study, one quarter of participants reported eating 7+ family meals in the past week, whereas another quarter reported eating family meals 2 or less times in the past week (Eisenberg et al., 2004). Since 1999, the frequency of family meals in the United States has remained generally consistent, but certain subgroups have experienced challenges to maintaining this ritual. Specifically, family meals amongst youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds, children in middle-school, and Asian families have decreased (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2013). Therefore, it is important to recognize upfront that it is a privilege to be able to maintain a regular family meal schedule. However, this article will examine the benefits to keeping family meals a regular part of the family routine and provide alternative options to achieve similar benefits if family meals are not feasible.
Family meals improve the socioemotional well-being of children, meaning they tend to have more stable emotional states and greater levels of vitality in their lives. Children in families who eat 7+ family meals per week (regardless of whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner) show less depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. More specifically, girls are half as likely to report a suicide attempt when their families eat 7+ meals per week together (Eisenberg et al., 2004). Finally, greater frequency of family meals is also associated with greater self-esteem in children (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2010).
Family meals might even be powerful enough in the lives of children to prevent future substance use. One study found that family meal frequency was associated with lower rates of substance use for girls, but not for boys (Eisenberg et al., 2008). More specifically, greater frequency of family meals is related to lower rates of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use 5 years later (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2010). These benefits are independent of family functioning, suggesting that the protective nature of family meals on substance use in kids even occurs when the families have poor relationships (Eisenberg et al., 2008).
Much attention has been given to the role that family meals play in the prevention of eating disorders. Family meal frequency is related to lower disordered eating behaviors (like purging, restriction, and binge eating), unhealthy weight control behaviors, and dieting for both males and females (Loth et al., 2015), but the general atmosphere of the family meal plays a crucial role. It is important for the family to feel connected and for parents to model the behaviors and mindsets that are likely to promote desired outcomes in children. For example, modeling positive discussions about food (“this grain bowl is so yummy and makes me feel energized”) can help children to be flexible within their relationship with food. Any discussion about the child’s weight or body, parental encouragement to diet, and parental body dissatisfaction even throughout family meals make girls more likely to develop weight-related problems in the future (Langdon-Daly & Serpell, 2017). As a result, when you are enjoying family meals, be conscious about the ways you talk about foods, your body, and your child’s body.
Family meals also are an important mechanism to prevent obesity in children and long-term as they become young adults. Adolescents who have more family meals are less likely to be overweight or obese (Sen, 2006; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2010). Even if just once per week, the weekly presence of family meals during childhood reduces the odds of the child being overweight or obese 10 years later compared to kids who never have family meals (Berge et al., 2015).
Family meals have a whole host of nutritional benefits for children. Children in families who eat together tend to eat breakfast more regularly, eat more fruits and vegetables, cook meals from scratch, and consume foods that contain calcium and micronutrients (Fulkerson et al., 2009; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2010; Verhage et al., 2018). Many of these nutritional benefits persist years later; young adults whose families prioritized eating together take in more fruits and vegetables and also have a stronger desire to share meals with other people (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2010).
Children benefit academically and intellectually from eating meals together as a family. Mealtime conversation is strongly related to language acquisition in young children and family meals help to expand the vocabularies of children. Children who do well on achievement tests (Fruh et al., 2011) and children with high grades (Eisenberg et al., 2004) tend to come from families who participate in frequent family meals. Additionally, kids whose families eat together regularly tend to read more for pleasure and spend more time on homework (Tepper & Michael, 1999).
Within the context of family meals, it is easy to focus on the benefits, specifically for children. However, parents also get a lot out of the family meals beyond pure enjoyment and connection with their family. One study found that a greater frequency of family meals was related to higher levels of family functioning, greater self-esteem and lower levels of depression and stress in parents. Similar to children, family meals promote greater consumption of fruits and vegetables for parents, implying nutritional benefits for parents (Utter et al., 2018).
No time for family meals?
There are many factors that make family meals inaccessible for some folks. Work schedules, children’s extracurricular events, pickiness, lack of cooking skills, lack of availability/accessibility to foods, or conflict within the family can all serve as barriers to both the motivation for and ability to fit in family meals. However, if you are hoping to reap some similar nutritional benefits, providing availability and accessibility to fruits and vegetables can help increase their consumption. Additionally, parental modeling of eating fruits and vegetables as well as parental encouragement significantly increases their consumption in children even without regular family meals (Watts et al., 2016).
The reasons that family meals are so powerful are because of parental modeling of positive food behaviors and mindsets, communication about daily activities, parental monitoring of child’s food intake, and emotional and social connection between family members (Eisenberg et al., 2008). If family meals are not feasible for your family, prioritizing these factors throughout the rest of your day/week may also help to reap some of the same benefits.
So, how often are you able to eat meals with your family? How do you overcome some of these common barriers to family meals?
Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
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