The Documented Benefits of Families Eating Together.
Your mom said it; your grandparents said it; there are whole organizations dedicated to it. Heck, we’ve even said it: Sharing a meal is one of the best things you can do for your family, especially your children.
But as we all know, just because a bunch of people are saying something, and just because it sounds like it makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s actually true. In fact, there’s a long, sad history of so-called “conventional wisdom,” turning out to be absolutely false. With that in mind we decided to take a look and see how much real solid information as out there on the benefits of family dinners.
Family Dinners – A Deliciously Good Habit
High Risk Behavior Reduction – According to this study by the Journal of Adolescent Health, not only does sharing a family meal correlate strongly with the reduction of “high-risk,” behaviors in adolescents, the more frequently families eat together the stronger that correlation gets. In other words, the more often you have dinner with your kids, the less likely they’ll be to engage in risky behavior like binge drinking, or experimenting with drugs. You can read the entire study for free at the above link, or download the pdf. There are a host of other studies at the Journal as well, examining the positive effects of family dining on children’s mental health, food choices and other topics.
Stronger Academic Performance – Studies by such disparate organizations as the University of Illinois (multiple studies), the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, and even a Reader’s Digest survey indicate that kids who eat more meals with their families score higher on tests, get better grades (they’re 40% more likely to report getting As and Bs), and have larger vocabularies than their peers who shared few meals with their families. The reasons for this are that conversations with so-called “rich content,” unusual words, and new ideas help develop the language centers of your child’s brain. Family meal time has been found to be a more powerful predictor of good grades than reading together, playtime, or even if a child lives with both parents.
Better Eating Habits – It almost (but not quite!) goes without saying that kids who share home-cooked meals with their families are more likely to eat more healthily than those who don’t, but the difference is actually startling. At this point everyone knows the benefits of eating our fruits and vegetables. But we all also apparently have a tough time following our moms’ advice (almost 20% of kids aged 6-19 are overweight). Home cooked meals tend to have more of the greenery (plus calcium, vitamins and fiber) than restaurant meals. And of course, home cooking is exponentially more healthy than fast food meals. Soda consumption tends to be lower at home as well, where there are less likely to be free refills of your ginormous serving. When you share a meal with your kid, you’re demonstrating that you value smart eating choices in the most effective way possible: by modelling those choices with delicious results.
Increased Self-Sufficiency – In spite of the flood of cooking shows, cookbooks, and celebrity chefs we’re surrounded by, fewer and fewer of us actually know how to plan and execute a meal menu. Even if you don’t have your kids actually help in the kitchen (although you totally should), just by having them see you do this, they’ll pick up some of the necessary skills. Then, when your kids head out into the world, these skills will help them save money, be healthy and impress girls. In the short term, when you have some help in the kitchen, meals will come together quicker, your family will have even more quality time together, and the teamwork required will strengthen family ties.
Making it happen
Alright, we’ve laid out the benefits, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually put those meals on the table. Here are a few quick tips:
- Keep it simple and be flexible, especially at first. If you don’t cook and the idea of prepping a family meal gives you the willies, order a pizza or get Thai food delivered. The food is less important than the family together time.
- Make sure you have healthy, easy to prepare ingredients on hand, like good lettuce, carrots and other raw vegetables so you can always incorporate a salad or healthy side dish to your meals (even if you order out for pizza or bring home burgers).
- Plan ahead and have the kids help. Plan for just one or two family meals per week at first, and then periodically add a night once you’ve established the habit. There’s no upper limit on the benefits of eating together.
- Turn off the TV.
- Plan activities or conversation starters.
- Focus on the positive and have fun.