Do you remember the days when you had to rush home from school or work so you could be at the dinner table to eat the evening meal with your family? The evening meal time was a sacred event for many of us! There was no excuse to miss dinner. And, the phone wasn’t to be answered and the TV was off while people were eating. Paul and I both came from larger and not very well-to-do families so our evening meals weren’t considered “King’s food” by any American standard. In fact, his Sunday dinner often consisted of baked bean casserole and I remember fried potatoes or Malto Meal dinners.
What we remember more than the fare however, was the consistency of the experience, the gentle learning of table manners, the conversations, and the kinship that developed between children and parents. These seem to be hard to find today. In fact, America ranks 33 of 35 of nations when it comes to eating family meals together consistently. Not the strongest are we?
So, what is the big deal about eating family meals together? Take a look at what you and your family will benefit from if you eat at least 4 meals every week together:Your child may be:
- 35% less likely to experience eating disorders
- 24% more likely to eat healthier foods
- 12% less likely to be overweight
- Fewer episodes of depression (improved psychological well-being)
- Less delinquency, alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse
- Greater academic achievement
- Delayed sexual activity
- More instances where they can say their parents are proud of them
- Greater likelihood of boosting their vocabulary through dinner conversation than by reading
Interestingly, researchers have found that meals eaten in front of the TV or with people on their cell phones do not carry the same mental health benefits as those eaten “unplugged.”
A survey found that the 9- to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron and fiber.
A family meal is the perfect time to introduce a child to new foods and different tastes. In a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children were offered some pieces of sweet red pepper and asked to rate how much they liked it. Then, each day for the next eight school days, they were invited to eat as much of the pepper as they wanted. On the final day, the kids were again asked to rate how much they liked it. By the end of the experiment, the children rated the pepper more highly and were eating more of it—even more so than another group of children who were offered a reward for eating the pepper. These results suggest that a little more exposure and a little less "You can leave the table once you finish your broccoli!" will teach kids to enjoy new foods, even if they don’t like them at first.
Other Benefits of Family Mealtime
Believe it or not, if you have a demanding job, finding time to eat with your family may actually leave you feeling less stressed. Researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM workers and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office. (Interestingly, the effect wasn’t as pronounced among dads.) Alas, the study didn’t take into account the stress of rushing to get out of the office, picking up the kids, and getting a meal on the table.
A few years ago, the average household spent $3,465 on meals at home, and $2,668 on meals away from home. When you take into consideration that the $2,668 spent on meals away from home only accounts for about 30% of meals (according to historical data), that’s about $8 per meal outside of the home, and only about $4.50 per meal made in your own kitchen. No one can tell you eating healthy is expensive when you compare it to the cost of eating meals away from home.
You control the portions! Eating out can be convenient but it’s also full of calories—portion sizes in restaurants just keep growing! The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal. Studies show that when we are presented with more food, we eat more food, possibly leading to our expanded waistlines.
Children depend on their parents for the ABCs of good health. 71% say they get information about how to be healthy from their mother; 43% from their father.
New homes today no longer have formal dining rooms and the “Eat-in” kitchen seems small and unfriendly. Create a space that is designed to encourage creative conversation with great food choices not just gobbling down the meal while watching TV.
The benefits of family mealtime have been demonstrated for children of all ages. Better grades, healthier eating habits, closer relationships to parents and siblings, ability to resist negative peer pressure, resilience in the face of life's problems — all these are outcomes of simply sharing dinner on a regular basis. What else can families do that takes only about an hour a day and packs such a punch?