Family Meals: The importance of eating together regularly
Did you know eating together as a family can have physical and mental health benefits? And it’s not just about what you’re eating.
Health Agenda magazine
There’s something special about sharing a meal with loved ones. For some of us, it’s the only time in our day when we stop to spend time with friends, partners or children. While our busy lifestyles may make this harder than ever to find time for, studies show eating meals together regularly has more benefits than we may realise.
A side order of communication
For psychologist Amanda Gordon, one of the main benefits of eating together is connection.
‘[We can] live very isolated lives, sitting in front of a desk, talking to people online or on the phone. We get very little opportunity to engage with people at a deeper level,’ she says.
‘Connecting around food can be a very safe way of doing this, because you can eat and stop and think for a while.’
Gordon says that food takes on more importance than just nutritional value when we’re eating with others.
Oxford University research even goes so far as to suggest that people who eat socially feel happier and are ‘more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities and have more friends they can depend on for support’.
The same research suggests that social eating could improve self-esteem.
Kids hungry for connection
Studies show the effect of eating with your children is both immediate and long lasting. And Gordon suggests it can also help children understand social cues.
‘We teach the skills that go with being part of a society when we’re sitting around a table,’ she explains. ‘It’s a chance for parents to teach children to wait until the next person has spoken, to teach them restaurant behaviours and how to ignore distractions and focus on the conversation at hand.’
Gordon says it’s also the perfect time for each family member to talk about their day, reflect on what’s happened and offer each other support.
For young children, family meals have been linked to better vocabulary, according to Harvard University research.
For teenagers, a lack of family meals has been linked to increased disruptive behaviour, academic problems and an increase in alcohol and drug use, according to recent research.
Quality food and quality outcomes
Dietitian Caitlin Reid points out that children who eat with their parents tend to eat more fruit and vegetables, as well as have fewer fried foods and soft drinks.
These healthy eating habits can have long-term benefits. Research from the Université de Montréal showed that children who routinely ate their meals with their family at age 6 were more likely to be fitter and have less soft drink at age 10. These children were also seen to have more social skills and be less aggressive at age 10.
The healthy eating habits can even last into adulthood. Research published in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that adolescents who have regular family meals are more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own as young adults.
For some, it may seem an unattainable goal to eat a meal with family or a community group 7 days a week. But the good news is that US research suggests the benefits can be felt with group dinners just 3 times a week.
Tips for family meals
It’s important to set up a healthy environment at family mealtime. Reid recommends the following:
Cut digital distractions: If the TV is on, you’re not as likely to reap the benefits of eating together. Turn screens off and ask everyone to put devices on silent and keep them away from the table.
Plan ahead: Think about the meals you want to cook for the week and write them where they can be seen. Each family member could select a meal they would like to eat one night. This can work well with primary school-aged children. If your meal habits aren’t what you’d like them to be, you may want to set food goals as a family – for example, eating fresh vegetables at every family dinner.
Schedule dinner: Make sure family or friends know when you are expecting them to sit down together for a meal. Advance notice means everyone can make it a priority.
Save time: Consider time-saving methods of cooking, like rice cookers or slow cookers, that require less effort but still produce nutritious meals. You can also prepare part of the dish earlier in the week or on the weekend so there’s less to do on the night.
Delegate: Ask all family members to help with one part of getting dinner ready. This could be setting the table, cooking dinner or dishing up the meal. By involving children in cooking, they learn about wholesome food preparation and see it as part of a healthy diet.
Experiment: Regularly try new recipes and ingredients. This gives everyone the chance to appreciate a wide range of food choices and flavours.