I, a 40-year-old mother of three, formally apologize to my parents for my childhood antics and teenage attitude about dinnertime. I now understand that producing a meal and wrangling unwilling or just unruly children around a table every single day (often multiple times) probably wasn’t the shining highlight of your day. Thanks for sticking with it, because it did me a lot of favors. And I accept this challenge for my own family because I’m convinced it will make a difference for my kids.
My kids are in elementary school, so I’m between the trials of the toddler years and trauma of the teens. But sports practices and school and work commitments make our evenings ever-changing, and there’s plenty of whining about the meals I choose, so I’m not sure there’s a phase in raising kids where mealtimes are a breeze. But they’re worth it. Eating as a family makes a powerful impact on kids in ways you probably never considered. The list below shows nine compelling reasons that were enough to convince me to make this a bigger priority for my family.
The Valid Reasons We Don’t Eat Together
Among all adults (those with and without families), only 59% of meals are eaten together, and the trend to eat alone continues to grow, according to a 2017 report from the Food Marketing Institute Foundation. The reasons families often don’t eat dinner together at home sound very pretty on target to me:
- 55% say differing schedules
- 21% say distractions get in the way
- 21% say there’s not enough time to prep meals
- 19% say they just don’t have the energy
- 18% say differing tastes make it challenging
Some items on the list – like different schedules – feel like solid barriers. Brick walls between my family and the kitchen table. Others seem more like a heavy curtain I need to just roll up my sleeves and shove aside. But make no mistake, on a given Wednesday after work they are NO JOKE. Staring at a frozen pound of meat at 6 p.m. or navigating the minefield of choosing a recipe the entire family will eat are not things that make me skip happily home from work with a song in my heart.
The Powerful Reasons to Make Family Meals a Priority
These 10 powerhouse reasons to eat as a family five to seven times a week really do blow the above excuses out of the water. I’ll go through these reasons, and then give suggestions on how to overcome some of the biggest challenges.
1) Eating together helps kids academically
Sitting down to eat as a family means kids have conversations with adults. Studies show this boosts vocabulary in younger kids even more than reading to them. In this Washington Post article, researchers also identified regular family mealtimes as a bona fide predictor of high achievement scores. It tied more closely than time spent in school or doing homework, sports or art. And this benefit doesn’t lose its value with older kids. Teens who eat regular family meals were twice as likely to get As in school.
2) Eating together helps you identify and address red flags
Regular family meals establish a baseline of kids’ behavior and attitudes and give parents a systematic checkpoint. If kids take medication for asthma or ADHD and it’s their responsibility to do that, meal-time offers an easy chance for parents to confirm things are on track. A study on teen victims of cyberbullying published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that those with regular family dinners were more protected from harmful consequences (things like anxiety, depression and substance abuse) by the regular contact and communication with their families.
3) Eating together deters high-risk teen behaviors
Quick show of hands: Who would find a way to eat dinner as a family every night if it meant it eliminated all risk that your children would do drugs, smoke, binge drink, get an eating disorder or be sexually active?
Me, me, me!
Family dinners aren’t magic (bummer), but a whole bunch of research does link regular family dinners to fewer high-risk behaviors in teens. These meals scientifically seem a better protection from risky behaviors than grades or church attendance. But let’s not get crazy. I’m still monitoring report cards and taking my kids to church.
4) Eating together creates stronger kid/teen-parent relationships
Listen up, parents of teens – or parents like me who are staring down the barrel at the coming teen years. This quote from a Columbia University study is for you:
“When asked whether they prefer to have dinner with their families or to eat alone, 84 percent of teens surveyed say they prefer to have dinner with their families.”
And this one…
“When asked when is the best time to talk to their parents about something that is important to them, nearly half of teens said during or after dinner is the best time.”
Kristie’s kids making pizza dough.
Meals together become a few moments of the day when things slow down and kids and parents feel like they can talk about more than to-do lists or what’s coming next on the schedule. It’s a regularly-scheduled time to communicate, and communication builds relationships. My two degrees and 20 years of professional experience in the communication field show me the truth of this statement, though I’m forever a work in progress when it comes to communication in my own home.
5) Eating together makes your house a hangout
Across cultures and throughout history, food has the habit of bringing people together. It does the trick with families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. A Cornell study looked at 50 fire stations over 15 months and compared the performance of platoons who share meals with platoons who eat alone. Those who share meals work better as a team and perform better overall. The study’s author concludes: “Eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue.”
A friend told me last week she keeps her cupboards better stocked now that her sons are old enough to play outside with neighborhood kids on their own because a pack of kids always ends up back in her house plopped at the kitchen table asking if she has snacks. She doesn’t want them to stop coming, so she keeps food at the ready.
6) Eating together creates and strengthens memories
Some of my favorite memories of family dinners include the truly atrocious recipes served by my mother. Who eats lima bean, beef-ball casserole I ask? NOT ME, that’s for sure! As a child, and perhaps middle schooler, I absolutely 1) threw up on the kitchen table 2) fed dinner to the cat with the help of a friend who was over for dinner 3) jammed gross food around the edges of my bowl and covered it with napkins until my uncle called me out. My kids know and laugh at these stories still. Family meals can be a great time to recount fun stories about your past or about other family members.
My family + one aunt + one grandma + one cousin = fun times.
My mother-in-law tragically passed away right before our oldest son’s first birthday, but my kids tell stories about her all the time. Many of these stories have surfaced over the years as we reminisce during meal times.
Then there was the time my kindergartner had a friend over for a playdate. We ate lunch together and apparently I asked lots of questions and acted mildly loopy, because the exasperated friend finally looked at my son and asked, “Is she always like this?” I felt actual pride in that moment.
7) Eating together lets families process current events together
We’re raising kids in a scary world that’s a whole lot different than the world we grew up in. Not only do crazier things happen, but our kids have more access to more information than ever before thanks to technology. Earthquake in California? The kids saw it on the morning video news at school. Momo terrifying kids on YouTube? My son heard it from a friend playing Fortnite on the PS4 and now my 5-year-old is scared to watch videos on how to make a Barbie dress out of a dollar store headband on YouTube.
Meal times can be a lower stress time to process some of these difficult issues and set misinformation straight as a family. Unless the topics are inappropriate for younger siblings, it can be good for them to hear questions asked and answered even if they don’t completely understand the issues under discussion. The underlying message comes through that it’s ok to ask questions and meals are a good time to talk about things you heard that you don’t understand or might be worried about.
In a Common Sense Media study on news and America’s kids, 48 percent of kids 10-18 said following the news is important to them, and 50% said following the news helps them feel prepared to make a difference in their communities. If my kids want and feel prepared to make a difference, I want to know about it so I can help.
More than 60 percent of kids also said the news makes them feel afraid, angry and/or sad or depressed – and tweens are the most affected. If my kids are stressed about something they saw in the news, I want to help them talk that through. Kids trust information from their families the most, followed by teachers/other adults, and then news. I am the most compelling source of accurate information for my kids, and I don’t want to take that responsibility lightly.
Common Sense Media is one of my go-to resources for reviews and age-related information on movies, videogames and other types of media.
Common Sense Media is a nonprofit with big-hitter partners like Harvard Graduate School of Education, Apple, Amazon and nearly every cable provider.
8) Eating together teaches manners
I make this hypothetical point in the hope that eventually my children will evolve into adults with a full set of manners, because it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going well at many of our family dinners. My heathens often talk with food in their mouths, eat non-finger foods with fingers, drop food from their mouths directly to laps, and my personal favorite: put bare feet on the table. Why should that ever happen when I don’t have toddlers?! But I do see indications that our regular training might actually pay off in the end. Exhibit A: Other parents telling me my children use actual manners at their houses when I’m not there to witness it.
9) Eating together is more nutritious
I guarantee that my kids eat more fruits and vegetables when we’re all sitting down together for a meal. I know this because I serve them, I watch them eat and I get on their backs if they haven’t eaten their veggies. I also admit that I eat healthier at the kitchen table with others rather than at my computer or in front of the TV where a slice of re-heated pizza feels like a balanced meal to my distracted brain.
The scientists back me up here. Studies from the National Institutes of Health show that adolescents who eat family meals five to seven times a week are less likely to be overweight.
How to Make Family Meals Possible
Let’s set some flexible guidelines to make five to seven family meals week a reasonable goal that still reaps all of the above benefits. If you’re looking for more information, The Family Dinner Project website has some great resources. The project operates out of Harvard, so there are smart people behind it. Founding member Anne Fishel also published the book Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids with other how-to’s.
Tip #1: Family meals do not have to be dinner. Weekend breakfasts or lunch after a sports game can be good options. Weekday breakfasts might work if your family is all on the same schedule, which takes ever-changing evening meetings and practices out of the equation.
Tip #2: Family meals ultimately promote healthier eating, but every family meal does not need to be a made-from-scratch cornucopia of wellness. Rotisserie chicken picked up on the way home from work, pizza night and Wendy’s in the van on the way to rehearsal all still qualify if you’re eating as a family – maybe don’t make the fast food a nightly thing, though.
For nights at home, simple, crowd-pleasing recipes and some advance meal planning make a huge difference. We know what a tedious hamster wheel this can be, so we created: The Best Meal Planning Hacks (And Recipes) for Moms.
We asked our friends at the Columbus food blog The Beard and The Baker for a couple family favorites from her recipe collection. She recommended:
– Mini – Air Fried Beer Battered Fish Sandwiches + Tangy Tartar Sauce
– Buckeye Peanut Butter Chocolate Rollups (O-H!)
Tip #3: Family meals don’t always need to happen in your kitchen. Restaurants and meals at a family member’s or neighbor’s house also qualify.
Tip #4: No screens. This includes background TV, tablets to keep little ones occupied, and phones. Exceptions can be granted if questions arise during dinner conversation that require an immediate answer from Yoda Google. Screens distract from the conversation, and several studies link eating while watching TV with obesity in children.
Here is my what-NOT-to-do example. But my kids heard me laughing at the knitting video from our 61 East Ways You Can Relieve Stress Right Now post and wanted to know why, so I caved and let them watch before school.
Tip #5: Establish a dinnertime norm, but understand it needs to be flexible. Set a time for “regular” night meals and make efforts to get home from work in time to prepare or eat at that time. For the many nights when kid or adult plans disrupt that time, consider alternatives that still allow everyone to eat together. If kids have practice every Tuesday all fall, move Tuesday dinners until 8 p.m. for that season and make sure kids get a decent snack earlier in the day to carry them through.
Tip #6: Make the most of your time as a family. My family likes to do “Highs and Lows,” letting each family member share the best thing from their day and the worst. The Family Dinner Project offers other great conversation starters and questions for families with kids of different ages to throw into the mix every once in awhile.
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View the recording of Mary’s Facebook live on meal-planning for busy moms.