With meetings and appointments, sports practices and jammed schedules, today’s on-the-go lifestyle has an, often unforeseen, effect on the entire family. Many times, the chaos of conflicting agendas results in the family meal being pinched out of the lineup, as most parents simply don’t understand the value of eating together as one unit. However, researchers have identified this time spent together as, not only beneficial, but crucial even, especially for the little humans in the family. In fact, making some time each day, or week, to sit down at eat as a family is such an easy, simple way to reap priceless advantages, such as instilling healthier eating habits, reducing stress, and boosting self esteem.
Read more to discover 5 surprising ways eating together benefits the entire family.
1. Encourages Healthier Eating Habits
1 in every 6, or over 12 million, children living in the United States is now classified as obese, and in most of these cases, the problem is rooted in poor eating habits. And, according to research into the lives of typical American children, these poor eating habits begin so much earlier than you may think. By their first birthday, many toddlers are already consuming more than five teaspoons of added sugars per day through cakes, cookies, brownies, and soft drinks. And, with sugar’s dangerous and addictive properties, it’s vital to limit it in early childhood. Sadly, these kids aren’t just eating this way at home. In fact, the CDC has revealed that more than 1 in 3 American kids, between the ages of 2 and 19, will eat at least one of their meals from a fast food restaurant today.
So, what can we do to get our kids to make, and enjoy, healthier eating habits? One solution may simply be to eat more meals together.
When children eat at the family table, their parents have the opportunity to model desired eating behavior. So, just because your child may not actually eat their peas, they see you eating yours, and scientists are discover that this influence is so much stronger than many believe. Children and adolescents who ate at least one meal per day with their family were found to have about double the fruit and vegetable intake, had better self-regulation, were more receptive to trying new foods, and ate significantly less fast food than those who didn’t. And, not surprisingly, the more meals children ate with their families, the more striking the results. With regards to obesity, children who ate at least three meals per week with their families were found to have a lowered likelihood of being overweight, reduced their intake of unhealthy ‘junk’ foods by 20%, and were 35% less likely to develop an eating disorder.
2. Improves Family Dynamic
Having parents who are engaged, involved, and curious about their lives extremely valuable and beneficial to children. And, with the go-go-go lifestyle many of us lead, family meals are one of the easiest ways to reunify the household. When parents and children are constantly missing each other, as they head to their next appointment, it’s becomes easier and easier for communication to falter, bonds to weaken, and the entire dynamic to be thrown off-kilter. Simply sitting down together, to eat a meal, a few times per week has shown significant impact on family communication and functioning, as well as the ability to improve family functioning overall[6,7].
In younger children, the family meal provides consistency, a sense of security, and really makes them feel a sense of belonging. These devoted times to the family improves the bond overall, provide an opportunity for deeper communication and connection, and also give parents a chance to instill necessary life skills, like table manners and basic cooking. And, while Hollywood often depicts a sullen teenager, painfully sitting at the table and enduring time with their family, research shows that even they enjoy this time as well. When compared with those who had 3 or less family meals per week, adolescents who ate a family meal 5-7 times per week were nearly twice as likely to report having an excellent relationship with their parents and siblings.
3. Boosts School Performance
A primary focus of many parents is how well their children are doing in school, and the grades they’re receiving. So, it may come as a relief to know that the simple act of enjoying a family meal a few times per week can reap significant academic benefit. And, while less than half of adolescents report reading (outside of school requirements) in the past 12 months, young people whose families routinely eat meals together frequently spend more time focusing on homework and reading for pleasure, and less time watching television.[11, 12]. When children spend more time eating with their families, their school performance seems to be impacted directly, with reading, math, and science improving, and internalized/externalized behaviors decreasing.
Most interesting though, it’s not only the act of spending time as a family that improves academic performance. As mentioned above, when children are involved in regular family meals, they make healthier eating choices, and this change may also improve grades and accomplishment in school. In one study, conducted in 2017, economists discovered that students who were offered healthier options for school lunch performed better on state standardized tests, implying that nutrition may directly impact cognitive performance. One main reason could be because “empty calories”, like desserts and sugar-filled drinks, make up approximately 40% of daily caloric intake for 2-18 year olds. While nutritionally-dense, balanced meals leave schoolchildren feeling full for longer, students eating these filler calories often find themselves hungrier throughout the school day. Hungry children are found to have slower memory recall, attention and hyperactivity problems, behavioral difficulties, lower math scores, and a higher likelihood of needing to repeat a grade.
Family time matters more than we know, and taking a moment, when we can, to connect with those closest to us is extremely valuable. Lifelong values, healthy relationships, and accomplishment all start with the family meal. Even just one meal per week makes all the difference.
Until next time,
1. The State of Obesity The State of Childhood Obesity
2. The Washington Post American’s Junk Food Start in Toddler Years. At Age 1, we eat Fries and Brownies – but few Veggies.
3. Los Angeles Times CDC Reveals just how much Fast Food American Kids Eat each Day
4. SciELO Does Family Mealtime have a Protective Effect On Obesity and Good Eating Habits in Young People? A 2000-2016 Review
5. NCBI Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?
6. SAGE Journals Family Mealtimes: Worth the Effort?
7. Cornell University Do Family Meals Really Make a Difference?
8. University of Florida Family Nutrition: The Truth about Family Meals
9. Center on Addiction The Importance of Family Dinners VII
10. NPR Why Aren’t Teens Reading Like they Used to?
11. JAMA Network Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Wellbeing Among Adolescents
12. Taylor & Francis Online Correlates Among Irregular Family Meal Patterns Among 11-Year-Old Children from the Pro Children Study
13. NCBI Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioral Outcome
14. University of California School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance
15. Michigan Nutrition Standards The Link Between Nutrition and Academic Achievement