Family Meal Importance
The benefits of the family meal are numerous and provide enhanced academic, emotional, and physical well-being for children. Pediatricians can use well child visits to promote this healthy habit.
Current research shows that a third of families with 11- to 18-year-olds eat together only one or two meals per week – at most. Only one fourth eat seven or more family meals per week. Thirty years ago, families spent 30% more time together sharing meals.
The experience at the meal table has also declined in quality with the increase in distractions such as television watching, smartphone apps, text messaging, and telephone conversations.
Barriers to family meals cited by parents include too little time, child and adult schedule challenges, and food preparation. Most parents, however, say they place a very high value on family meals, ranking them above every other activity (including vacations, playing together, and religious services) in helping them connect with their families and children. Most wish they had more family dinners.
PROMOTING STRONG, STABLE FAMILIES
- Family meals are powerful for many reasons. Mealtimes affect all of our senses—the sight, touch, taste, and smell of food, as well as listening to family conversation. Family meals offer the opportunity to spend time together, reconnect after a busy day, communicate with and listen to each other, and share values and ideas, as well as solve problems.
- Family meals contribute to traditions that tie families together. A special food for a birthday celebration, a favorite place to eat for special occasions, or a cultural or ethnic food unique to the family’s heritage become traditions that provide meaning and context to children as they grow.
- Family meals provide a structure for the day, allowing children to feel more secure and safe, knowing what to expect.
- Family meals permit parental monitoring of children’s moods, behavior, and activities, providing parents with insight into the emotional well-being of their children.
There are many well documented benefits to family meals. These include:
- Improved academic achievement (1)
- Enhanced language development (2)
- More healthy eating habits have been observed in children who have regular family meals, including eating more fruits and vegetables, less saturated fats, and fewer fried foods and sodas.
- Adolescents who have regular family meals are less likely to have disordered eating and less likely to use diet pills or skip meals.
Decreased high-risk behaviors:
- Teens who have more family meals are less likely to use marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol. (6)
- Teens who have more family meals are less likely to access prescription drugs in order to experience a high. (6)
- Teens who have more family meals are less likely to have friends who abuse drugs. (6)
Improved family relationships:
- Teens who eat more meals with their families are more likely to report having an excellent relationship with their mother, father, and siblings. (6)
- Teens who have more family meals have fewer emotional and behavioral problems and higher life satisfaction, regardless of family economics. (6,7)
Less susceptible to bullying:
- Teens who experience cyber-bullying are more resilient and less likely to suffer emotional distress if they participate in family meals. (8)
This timing of the conversation is dependent on the age of the child. Ideally, this could become part of a yearly discussion with parents.
This conversation involves the parents of the child.
This conversation can happen at any well-child visit, but may be especially appropriate to introduce at the 2-year visit.
- Parents are always interested in nutrition and want information about appropriate dietary intake at each well child visit.
- Parents may also ask questions about table manners between 18 months and 2 years because their toddlers are throwing food off their tray or plate.
You can transition from nutrition to the concept of the family meal by saying, “I am just as concerned about what goes into your child’s brain as what goes into his or her mouth.”
Mealtime is one of the most important times of the day for families and children.
- This is a time when you can share your values, teach life skills such as problem solving, and check in on your children’s emotional well-being.
- Ask, “Are you able to spend time together enjoying meals as a family?”
- If so, encourage the parent to continue this habit and mention some of the benefits.
- If not, mention some of the benefits of the family meal and then ask, “How do you think you could change your schedule to be able to share a few meals together?”
Provide the handout “How to Have a Healthy Family Table,” which discusses the benefits of the family meal. This handout is available at http://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/How-to-have-a-healthy-family-table.pdf.
Two obstacles to the family table include the busy and overloaded schedules of each family member and the pervasive use of media and “screens.”
Encourage a “family meeting” to see how schedules might be adjusted to ensure more family meals.
- The family may decide to eat slightly earlier or later to guarantee a meal together.
- This conversation may help family members realize that their schedules are too crowded and that some activities should be eliminated.
All cell phones, land lines, television, video games, and other electronic devices should be turned off during family meals.
- Family members may see such benefit from the elimination of electronic devices that they decide to extend this “quiet time” to one to two hours every night.
- Parents should be good role models and also turn off their cell phones.
Food tastes better when you eat it with your family!
- Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Arch Pediat Adol Med. 2004;158:792-796.
- The Barilla Family Dinner Project. Share the table: benefits of the family dinner for parents and children. http://www.sharethetable.com/docs/BenefitsofTheFamilyDinnerWhitePaper.pdf. Accessed April 1, 2014.
- Doherty WJ. The family dinner table and the health of our children: traditional wisdom and new data. http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/humannutrition/DesktopModules/ViewDocument.aspx?DocumentID=8481. Accessed February 20, 2014.
- Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinners and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:235-240.
- Anderson SC, Whitaker RC. Household routines and obesity in US preschool-aged children. 2010;125:420-428.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Eisenberg ME. Family meals and disordered eating in adolescents. Arch Pediat Adol Med. 2008;162(1):17-21.
- National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The importance of family dinners II. http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2005. Accessed February 10, 2014.
- Coon KA, Goldberg J, Rogers BL, Tucker KL. Relationships between use of television during meals and children’s food consumption patterns. 2001;107(1):e7.
- Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Pediatrics. 2011;127(6):1565-1574.
- Musick K, Meier A. Assessing causality and persistence in associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being. J Marriage Fam. 2012;74(3):476-493.
- 2011 family dinners report finds teens who have infrequent family dinners likelier to smoke, drink, use marijuana. http://www.casacolumbia.org/newsroom/press-releases/2011-family-dinners. Accessed February 7, 2014.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M. A perspective on family meals: do they matter? Nutr Today. 2005;40(6):261-266.
- Regular family dinners offer benefits to modern families. CYFERnet. http://www.human.cornell.edu/pam/outreach/upload/Family-Mealtimes-2.pdf. Accessed February 10, 2014.
- Neumark-Sztainer D. Eating among teens: do family mealtimes make a difference for adolescents’ nutrition? New Dir Child and Adolesc 2006;111:91-104.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Story M, Fulkerson JA. Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? J Adolescent Health. 2004;35:350-359.
- National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The importance of family dinners II. http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2005.Accessed February 10, 2014.
- National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The importance of family dinners VII. http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2011. Accessed February 10, 2014.
- Elgar FJ, Craig W, Trites SJ. Family dinners, communication, and mental health in Canadian J Adolescent Health. 2013;52:433-438.
- Elgar FJ, Napoletano A, Saul G, et al. Cyberbullying victimization and mental health in adolescents and the moderating role of family dinners. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;158(11)1015-1022.
- Snow CE, Beals DE. Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. Spring 2006; 111: 51-66.
- American College of Pediatricians handout, “How to have a health family table,” https://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/How-to-have-a-healthy-family-table.pdf.
- American College of Pediatricians, more information on sharing a family table, https://www.acpeds.org/parents/family-health/the-family-table.