Family Meals: More Than Just Eating at Home

raising healthy kids When something has to give, it’s easy to understand why family meals may fall by the wayside. And yet, family meals are not only a time for strengthening family ties and keeping track of your children’s lives, they can actually lead to better physical and mental health for your children1

Benefits of Family Meals

Improved Learning

From language skills to grades, research links conversations between adults and children during family meals to success at school2. Frequent family meals are linked with being successful in school. Family meals expose children to a more diverse vocabulary and were linked in one study to language development and later academic success3. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University also found that teens who ate with their families most often were more likely to get As and Bs in their classes4.

Enhanced Nutrition

A large body of research also supports the link between family meals and nutrition. A Harvard University study published in the Archives of Family Medicine found that families who ate together almost every day generally consumed more important nutrients like calcium, fiber, iron, vitamins B6 and B12, C and E, and less overall fat than families who rarely ate together5. During adolescence, family meals also contribute to higher daily intakes of fruit, vegetables, calcium and other important nutrients, and lower intakes of soft drinks6,7. A research review published in the scientific journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that children and adolescents who eat three or more meals with their families per week are 24 percent more likely to eat healthy foods and 12 percent less likely to be overweight than peers who do not eat with their families as often8.

Better Behavior

The benefits of family meals extend beyond nutrition and academic achievement. Mealtime conversation promotes positive self-esteem in children and brings the family together2. Family meals also provide an opportunity for parents to engage children in the planning, preparation and enjoyment of food, which creates a lasting and positive relationship with food9,10.

Armed with the understanding of why family meals are important, commit to putting food on the table and reaping these benefits. Two additional tips to eat together and eat better focus on role modeling and meal ideas.

Children Model Your Behavior

When you cook and serve meals at home, you have more control over the quality and quantity of your family’s food choices. Kids tend to mimic their parents’ attitudes about food11

Children won’t perceive healthy eating as important if they don't see you doing it. Eat and serve sensible portion sizes. Be open to trying new foods and new ways of cooking foods. Learn more about role modeling to have your actions teach children about healthy eating12.

Family meals should be dynamic – an exchange of ideas, conversation and feelings. Turn off the television, the video games, mobile phones and the computer. Mealtime is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen family ties and pass on family cultural traditions. Encourage your kids to help prepare meals, set the table and help with dishes.

Easy Meals

You can keep meals simple, yet still nutritious and interesting, by sticking to nutrition basics. Offer your kids a variety of great-tasting foods from the major food groups for any meal or snack. Learn how to plan meals for your family in advance can save time.

When time is of the essence, keep meals simple. It’s easy to purchase a ready-made sauce or marinade and add it to sautéed chicken, beef or shrimp for a tasty main course.

Cook on weekends and double a favorite recipe, enjoying one meal now and freezing the other to enjoy some evening when you’re too tired to cook. Soups and casseroles are especially good to freeze.

Take advantage of prepared foods. Purchase a freshly roasted chicken from the supermarket and round out the meal with some brown rice and a green salad, and fresh fruit or yogurt for dessert.

No matter how simple the meal, take the time to sit down and enjoy it with your family. Make mealtime a pleasant experience, not a time for discipline or arguing about problems at school or work. Time spent breaking bread with friends and family will help your children form positive attitudes about food and eating and create fond family memories that will last a lifetime. Start or strengthen your family’s commitment to making meals matter and take the Eat Better, Eat Together family meal pledge.

 

1. Utter J, Denny S, Robinson E, Fleming T, Ameratunga S, Grant S. Family meals and the well-being of adolescents. J Paediatr Child Health. 2013 Nov;49(11):906-11.

2. Harrison ME, Norris ML, Obeid N, Fu M, et al. Systematic review off the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian Family Physician. 2015 Feb;61(2):e96-e106.

3. Snow CE., Beals DE. Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. 2006;(111):51-66.

4. National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). The importance of family dinners VIII. September 2009. Available at: http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/NewsRoom.aspx?articleid=695&zoneid=51. Accessed July 21, 2010.

5. Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam. Med. 2000;9(3):235-240.

6. Larson NI, Nelson MC, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Hannan PJ. Making time for meals: Meal structure and associations with dietary intake in young adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:72-79.

7. Burgess-Champoux TL, Larson N, Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M. Are family meal patterns associated with overall diet quality during the transition from early to middle adolescence? J Nutr Educ Behav 2009;41:79-86.

8. Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Pediatrics 2011 127(6), e1565-e1574.

9. Larson NI, Perry CL, Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D. Food preparation by young adults is associated with better diet quality.J Am Diet Assoc.. 2006;106:2001-2007.

10. Larson NI, Story M, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Food preparation and purchasing roles among adolescents: Associations with socio-demographic characteristics and diet quality. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106:211-218

11. Lloyd AB, Lubans DR, Plotnikoff RC, Morgan PJ. Paternal lifestyle-related parenting practices mediate changes in children's dietary and physical activity behaviors: findings from the Healthy Dads Healthy Kids community randomized controlled trial. J Phys Act Health. 2014 Dec. 19. Epub ahead of print.

12. Kiefner-Burmeister AE, Hoffman DA, Meers MR, Koball AM, Musher-Eizenman DR. Food consumption by young children: a function of parental feeding goals and practices. Appetite. 2014 Mar;74:6-11.