What if you were told you could decrease your child's chance of obesity, improve their future eating habits and health, and improve their academic outcomes by doing one simple thing for an hour a day? You’d do it in a heartbeat, right? Family meals are a way to do just that. For centuries, the dinner table has been a gathering place for families. Too often, family meals are considered an old-fashioned ideal—something that just doesn't happen anymore. With this said, the benefits of frequent family meals are astonishing and have been proven by countless studies. The benefits include health, nutrition and family life, as well as much more.
Before we discuss how family meals impact nutrition, consider what happens in place of a family meal. Getting fast food, frozen dinners, eating/snacking in front of the TV, eating at work or in the car, or just not eating at all are a few of the common alternatives to a family meal. All of these behaviors can lead to a future of poor eating habits.
On the other hand, family meals typically result in a more balanced, nutrient-dense meal for children (and parents!). A review by the Advances in Nutrition Journal found that children who had regular family meals had a significant increase in fruits and veggies, which resulted in higher intakes of vitamins A, B-6, B-12, C and E. In addition, higher intakes of protein, calcium, fiber, and folate were also observed.
In addition to providing an immediate benefit by improving your child's diet, frequent family meals offer parents a chance to improve their child's health outcomes in the future. A child's acceptance of a variety of foods is largely related to his or her experiences with different foods. As parents and caregivers, providing children with a variety of healthy foods can help assure that they develop positive experiences with a diversity of food and do not become "picky eaters" as they get older. This helps to assure that children eat a balanced diet later in life and are willing to eat and try new things. Only giving children the sweet and salty foods we all crave can do them an injustice—making them unwilling to eat healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Surprisingly, the benefits of frequent family meals go far beyond nutrition. On the surface level, family meals allow parents the opportunity to teach children table manners, food safety, food preparation, and social skills. In addition, it has been shown that regular family meals effectively lower the risk of substance abuse, depression, and eating disorders. Furthermore, family dinners have been shown to provide children with a greater sense of resilience and higher self-esteem.
Making it Happen
As with anything, making regular family meals a reality in your household is easier said than done. So what can you do to make it happen? Here are a few tips:
Ask your kids if there is anything they would like to try for dinner. This is a good way to add variety to your families diet and allow everyone to try new foods.
Get Them Involved
For younger children, this could be letting them pick out foods they would like to try in the grocery store, a new fruit or vegetable, for example. Getting children involved helps them get excited about meals and gains their interest. In addition, getting younger children to help with preparation by giving them tasks they can handle is another way to make family meals enjoyable for them. Some simple tasks that are great for children are: washing fruit and vegetables, stirring ingredients, and setting the table.
Teach them something
This is especially good for getting older children and teens involved in family meals. Taking the time to teach them how to use equipment in the kitchen and prepare foods is a great way to teach them valuable life skills while also getting them involved with family meals.
Plan Ahead and Prioritize
It is important that a meal be planned out ahead of time so that everyone’s schedules will align. Find times during the week where everyone is free and plan meals around these times. Make sure everyone knows to stay free and keep this time available.
Think Beyond Dinner
Are evenings too busy in your house? Consider getting the family together for breakfast. Often times, breakfast is a simpler meal to prepare and the mornings are usually more open than the evenings. This can be a good alternative to the typical family meal at dinnertime.
Keep it Simple
Finding time for family meals is hard enough. Keep it simple at first by making one-pot meals like soups or chili. Or, try making food in bulk so that it can be served for more the one meal.
Regardless of you child’s age, regular family meals can be a great way to set them up for success. Try out some of these tips to get started today!
Jennifer Martin-Biggers, Spaccarotella K, Berhaupt-Glickstein A, Hongu N, Worobey J, Byrd-Bredbenne C. Come and Get It! A Discussion of Family Mealtime Literature and Factors Affecting Obesity Risk. Advances in Nutrition . 2014;5(3):23-5247. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.
Article written by Brad Beatty, Cedar Crest College Dietetic Intern working with Penn State Extension