By Dr. Mercola
Finding time to eat meals together as a family is a simple way to improve your family bond and, beyond that, reap significant benefits to your health and quality of life. Contrary to popular belief, many American families do make the time for family meals. A Gallup Poll revealed that 53 percent of adults with children younger than 18 years say they eat dinner together at home six or seven nights a week. This averages out to 5.1 dinners together as a family per week.1
If your schedule or lifestyle currently does not allow for family meal times (remember that the benefits are gleaned by eating together at any time of day, even breakfast or lunch), tweaking your activities, work schedule and meal planning to do so will pay off in spades.
Why Eat Together as a Family?
Writing in the Archives of Iranian Medicine, researchers described family dinner as a “proxy of family connectedness,” one that may influence mental health.2 In fact, children who ate dinner together five or more times a week were less likely to suffer from mental disorders as well as obesity.
“Such simple recommendations for consuming family dinner for families may be feasible, sustainable and effective for health promotion and disease prevention,” they wrote. Indeed, it’s not the first time such significant effects have been linked to dining together.3
In 2010, “The Importance of Family Dinners VI” report from CASAColumbia at Columbia University revealed that teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) were less likely to engage in risky behaviors than those who had less than three family dinners per week. Specifically, teens who did not eat frequent family dinners had double the likelihood of using tobacco, nearly double the risk of having used alcohol and a 1.5 greater likelihood of having used marijuana.4
Teens who did not eat with their families often were also much more likely to say they could access marijuana or prescription drugs to abuse in one hour or less, while teens who ate frequent family dinners had no such access. Teen parents may be surprised to learn that 72 percent of the teens surveyed said they think of frequent family dinners as very or fairly important.
One of the straightforward reasons why is because it allows time for parents to sit down and talk with their children and teens about what’s going on in their lives, with their friends and at school. Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA founder and chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, said:
“We have long known that the more often children have dinner with their parents the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs. We can now confirm another positive effect of family dinners — that the more often teens have dinner with their parents, the more likely they are to report talking to their parents about what’s going on in their lives. … In today’s busy and overscheduled world, taking the time to come together for dinner really makes a difference in a child’s life.”
Barriers to Family Meal Time?
Using data from the American Time Use Survey, researchers deconstructed family meals in the U.S. to determine what some of the key influences were in the odds of getting together for a meal, measured as “eating at all with children” or “having a family dinner.”
Single men were less likely to do either compared to men who were partnered or married, and married women were more likely to eat with their children or have family dinner compared to married men. Employment status also influenced the odds of having a family meal, but only for women, not men. The researchers noted:5
“Among dual-headed households, women had lower odds of eating a family dinner when both parents were employed compared [to] a dual-headed household with employed male/non-employed female … Family structure, parental gender and employment status all influence the odds of having a family dinner.”
If your work schedule precludes sitting down for a family dinner, adjust your family mealtime to earlier in the day — even an early breakfast. This is also a useful strategy for families with multiple after-school or evening activities and is, in fact, one I recommend for all families looking to optimize their health.
Move Your Family ‘Dinner’ as Early in the Day as You Can
In terms of your health, the earlier you eat your dinner the better — ideally at least three hours prior to bed. if you can, and if you can’t then ideally you should eat a very light meal. In fact, for adults, eating two meals a day may be closer to ideal, and particularly eating them in a window of six to eight consecutive hours (such as breakfast and lunch OR lunch and dinner).
As mentioned, if you choose to eat dinner, it's important to avoid eating late, ideally finishing up at least three hours before going to bed, as that is your most metabolically lowered state. This will promote good mitochondrial and overall health while preventing cellular damage from occurring.
In short, since your body uses the least number of calories when sleeping, adding excess fuel at this time will generate excessive free radicals that will damage your tissues, accelerate aging and contribute to chronic disease. While children and teens will also benefit from avoiding late-night eating, they do not need to restrict their meals to two a day. They likely need three square meals a day unless they're overweight.
For kids and teens, the type of food they eat would be a primary consideration. Ideally, all of their meals would revolve around eating real food — not processed foods, fast food and sugary snacks. Drinking plenty of pure water and avoiding sugary beverages is another key consideration. To sum up, don’t eat much before bed! While the social value of eating together as a family is huge, you can get that connection by eating at any time of day.
Family Meals Are Better for Your Waistline and Emotional Well-Being
Getting back to why it’s so important to eat with your family, research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior revealed that frequent family meals may have a protective effect on the mental health of adolescents.6 Those who shared five or more family meals per week had fewer depressive symptoms and emotional difficulties along with better emotional well-being. The protective link was particularly strong for depressive symptoms in girls.
Meanwhile, frequent family dinners along with consistent dinnertime routines were associated with lower body mass index (BMI) scores in children, which suggests it may help prevent childhood obesity.7
Again, it’s the eating together that counts, not the meal time. As such, research also shows that eating breakfast together has benefits. “Family breakfast frequency was associated with several markers of better diet quality … and lower risk for overweight/obesity in adolescents,” researchers concluded.8 In addition:
- 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 make better food choices. They're more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to eat unhealthy ones, and also less likely to develop eating disorders.9
- A Cornell University study found that families (both adults and children) who eat dinner in their kitchen or dining rooms have significantly lower BMIs than families who eat elsewhere. For boys, remaining at the table until everyone is finished with eating was also associated with a lower BMI.10
- Researchers at the European Conference on Obesity reported that children who don't eat dinner with their parents at least twice weekly are 40 percent more likely to be overweight than those who do.11
- Higher self-esteem and life satisfaction
- More trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and better relationships with their parents
- Better vocabulary and academic performance
- Lower teen pregnancy rates and truancy14
- Increased resilience to stress
A Successful Family Meal Should Be Media-Free
Lower parent dinnertime media use is also associated with better health outcomes in children,15 which is why it’s important for your family meal time to be free of cellphones, TV and other forms of media. Use the time to connect with your kids and really listen to what they have to say.
Also try involving your kids in the dinner-making process (as well as meal planning), and then asking a simple question, like what was the best thing about your child’s day, or what was something that made your child feel stressed.16 In the Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers even concluded, "The effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives."17,18
If you’re at a loss of what to talk about, The Family Dinner Project has a wealth of conversation starters grouped by different ages. “A well-worded question is the quickest way to connect after a long day,” they say. “We call them starters because we imagine they will spark a deeper conversation about the things that matter to you.” For example:19
- Ages 2 to 7: What is your favorite silly face to make? Name three things that are fun for you.
- Ages 8 to 13: Make up three silly new traditions for our family. What are you most looking forward to about a new school year (or fall)?
- Ages 14 to 100: What is your most unusual talent? Demonstrate it! If you could create a school dedicated to fun, what would it be like? What classes would be taught there?
Before Family Meals Comes Meal Planning
Your good intentions of sitting down to a family meal can quickly be eliminated if you realize you don’t know what’s for dinner. Meal planning can circumvent this by helping you to map out a week or so in advance what you’ll be eating when during the week.
Not only will this help you to eat healthier (there’ll be less likelihood that you’ll resort to fast food), but it can cut back on food waste while lessening the stress of figuring out what to eat. And while it might seem cumbersome to take time to plan your meals, it will actually save you time in the long run
Meal planning may be as simple or complex as you like (from jotting down your basic meals on a calendar to creating spreadsheets complete with every necessary ingredient). Choose a format that works for you, then set aside a time, such as Sunday mornings or Friday nights, to figure out what your family will eat this coming week.
Be sure to figure in plenty of variety for flavor and nutrition, and choose real-food recipes, not those that require processed ingredients. You’ll likely find that the more your family eats together, the more you’ll want to keep doing it. An added bonus is that you can teach your children the basics of cooking and pass down traditional cooking methods as you prepare your meal. Each child can play a role, from setting the table to clearing up dishes, helping establish confidence and responsibility.
Ultimately, if you value the importance of a family meal, you must make it a priority. This might mean you pack up a healthy meal to eat picnic-style after soccer practice some nights or get up early to eat a sit-down meal before you all set off for the day. Strive to eat together as often as you can, scheduling nonessential activities around your mealtimes and not the other way around.