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By Dr. Mercola
When was the last time you sat down to dinner with your family? The kind of meal that involves passing of dishes, good conversation, and genuine family bonding? For many, it may have been on Thanksgiving, but this type of important family event needn't happen only once or twice a year.
Families that make an effort to eat meals together at least three or four times a week enjoy significant benefits to their health, well-being, and relationships, all of which are explored in The Family Meal documentary above.
Family Dinners May Be a Growing Trend
The family meal hit a low point in the 1950s, the era of the TV dinner and the cultural shift that began to regard cooking dinner for the family as a major inconvenience. As foods become more readily available and storable in the freezer and in the pantry, the idea of cooking from scratch became almost passé.
Today in the US, we’re largely a nation of “heater-uppers” -- not cooks – and this means less time spent together with your family during the traditional ritual of preparing a meal. That being said, this seems to be changing, perhaps because people are beginning to miss the security and the socialization that family meals impart.
One study conducted earlier this year found that most US families eat dinner together most nights of the week, and 34 percent eat together seven nights a week. And wouldn't you know… 84 percent said that the time their family eats together is actually one of their favorite parts of the day.1
Family Meals Lead to Better Nutrition and Emotional Health
The Family Meal documentary focused in large part on the epidemic of childhood obesity, and the role that eating dinner with your family could play in curbing it. Research shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and have healthier eating patterns. They’re less likely to eat unhealthy foods, more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to have an eating disorder.2
But that’s far from all. Teens who eat with their families at least five times a week are 40 percent more likely to get A’s and B’s in school than their peers who don’t share family meals. They’re also 42 percent less likely to drink alcohol, 59 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66 percent less likely to try marijuana. They were also less depressed.3
The benefits are truly profound. Separate research showed, for instance, that with each additional family dinner, adolescents had:4
- Fewer emotional and behavioral problems
- Greater emotional well-being
- More trusting and helpful behaviors toward others
- Higher life satisfaction
Families Who Eat Together Build Stronger Relationships
Culturally, humans have been joining together for meals since ancient times, and we may be engrained to build relationships in this way. Even in modern times, family relationships appear to grow stronger around the dinner table, with another study concluding:5
“Our findings suggest that family meals may provide a unique opportunity for building stronger families and young people. Creating environments where frequent family meals are normative, valued and feasible for families may result in benefits for young people that extend beyond good nutrition.”
Still more benefits associated with family meals include:
- Better vocabulary development among children
- Increased self esteem
- Helps children build resilience
- Lower rates of teenage pregnancy
Making Family Meals a Priority
I have long stated that one of the keys to optimal health is having someone in your family (or someone you hire) invest some time in your kitchen, preparing meals from scratch. This doesn’t necessarily mean cooking -- personally, I try to eat about 85 percent of my food raw -- but some form of food preparation that might include fermented vegetables or milk, juicing veggies, sprouting sunflower seeds, soaking nuts, preparing raw meals, as well as some traditional cooking.
Spending the time together to eat the meal you’ve prepared is likely equally important, but both take planning to make them a reality. One of my favorite sayings with respect to your meals is if you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.
This means not only shopping ahead of time so you have the food available to cook, but also setting aside the time to eat together. Many sports for kids are scheduled at the family dinner hour, for instance, or parents may have a hard time getting home from work at a reasonable hour.
If you value the importance of a family meal, however, you must make it a priority. This might mean your family meal takes place at lunchtime instead of dinnertime on certain days of the week, but ideally strive to eat together as often as you can, scheduling non-essential activities around your dinner, and not the other way around.
Family Meals Help Pass Down Healthful Cooking Traditions
You may have certain recipes and other culinary traditions that you learned from your mother and grandmother, which you plan to pass on to your children, too. This is important, as often these passed-down recipes rely on traditional cooking methods and real, whole foods – not the processed convenience foods that are so common today.
As the documentary highlighted, part of the benefit of the family meal isn't only the time you spend eating together, but also the time you spend preparing your meal and cleaning up. Getting your children involved teaches them invaluable lessons about food preparation and how you function together as a family, and the more you involve them in the process, the greater the benefits are likely to be.
If you are seeking to use food to optimize your health, it is helpful to pay attention not only to the food quality, but also to how you prepare it, being careful to use methods that do not seriously impair its quality. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking, such as:
- Creating bone broth: Simmering leftover bones over low heat for an entire day will create one of the most nutritious and healing foods there is. You can use this broth for soups, stews, or drink it straight.
- Extending a slow-cooked Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners
- Learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat
- Cooking with real ingredients like coconut oil and butter in lieu of polyunsaturated vegetable oils or margarine
- Planning your meals around the seasonal produce available in your area
Quite simply, we've strayed too far from the foods we are designed to eat, exchanging the convenience of processed foods and fast foods for our very health. Going back to basics and refocusing your diet on fresh, whole, unprocessed, "real" food prepared and shared in your own kitchen can improve just about anyone's health, and at the same time help you fulfill your own family’s need for coming together over a good meal.