While gathering around the table with family may be more challenging than you would think, research shows it’s absolutely worth it. Eating together offers many advantages for all, including social and mental benefits, as well as improved performance in school and the workplace, plus better cognition.
Family meals also have a strong impact on nutrition and dietary outcomes. A 2020 systematic review, published in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that family meals improve fruit and vegetable consumption in both children and adults. Most Americans are not getting enough fruits and vegetables, so this extra bump can make a difference.
Some of the other benefits of family meals include better family functional outcomes, reduced adolescent drug use, reduced symptoms of depression, violence and suicide, higher self-esteem, and a greater sense of resilience.
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Why have family meals decreased?
With all of these benefits, it’s worth questioning why we can’t prioritize family meals more.
Some literature indicates that family meals have decreased by nearly 33 percent in the past 20 years, yet the desire is still there and tides may be changing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in the number of family meals and there is hope to hang on to that trend.
While the norm used to be for families to eat together, the changing landscape has brought about new challenges. For one, there are more single-generation households today and that number has consistently increased. Additionally, there are now many adaptations of the 9 to 5 workday, and more women (historically the primary preparer of family meals) are working outside the home. So, “dinner” as we know it may take on many variations. Add to that the rising cost of groceries and the fact that Gen-Xers and millennials are cooking less, it’s easy to understand how and why family meals have changed.
However, the rise of meal kits and convenient food delivery options don’t have to negate the family meal effort, and can be advantageous for family meals as a matter of fact. After all, these meal options can still be enjoyed together, and arguably, make the family dinner situation come together more easily.
What constitutes a ‘family meal’ for one household may differ from another
The definition of family is constantly evolving; therefore, even friends eating together on a regular basis can constitute a “family meal,” says David Fikes, executive director of the FMI Foundation.
“The family meal is a deliberate attempt of a family by birth or family by choice to sit down together at a table to share a meal and in the process share our lives,” he says.
In terms of outlining what does or doesn’t happen during a family meal, that can be up to each individual family. Some families may establish table-manners guidance, such as omitting the use of cell phones, while others may utilize conversation starters for all to answer.
How family meals usually lead to better nutritional intake for all
Oftentimes it’s less about what’s being served, but instead what else these gatherings offer—education, connection, and, perhaps even a sense of purpose. “It’s nice to include all generations in the growing, menu planning, shopping, and prep for the family meals,” Fikes says. “This adds to the interaction time between family members, plus often provides an easy way to bring in science and math applications in everyday situations. We also know that young[er] people are more inclined to eat fruits and vegetables they had a hand in growing, selecting, or preparing.”
Having a family dinner routine, when possible, allows that exchange of communication, sharing of messages and values, and just that reminder that “we’re here together,” for solidarity.
As a mom of three young children five and under, I’m a big proponent of sitting down together as a family when possible. For one, I know it helps reduce picky eating, as my kids see me eating what they are being served. Secondly, I appreciate how it allows them to see the meal process unfold from start to finish, which can generate more interest in the food. For instance, if we picked up frozen broccoli at the grocery store, they now see it transformed (baked and seasoned) on the table, served alongside other ingredients.
Thirdly, I know that as my children age, time will become more precious. They’ll want to spend more of it with their friends, and we may be going to and from more activities in the dinner hour.
It takes a commitment and some planning to carry out a family meal, but the mental, emotional and nutritional benefits they afford are worth the investment.
Here are some of my tried-and-true ways to bring together a family meal in minutes
- Keep pantry staples on hand as these wholesome, convenient items can help make a one-pan meal feel much more attainable.
- Purchase pre-cut fruits and veggies or meal kits from the grocery store (i.e. – salad kits, taco kits).
- Pair leftover portions with a new side to give the meal fresh flavor.
- Declare a kids night and let older kids pick the menu
- Bring back your favorite family meal from childhood. What did you enjoy, and what do you remember about it? What memories can you form with your family now?
Centering your family meal on a theme (taco, pizza, or even a movie/show night are all good options) or switching things up (serve breakfast for dinner!) offer fun, nostalgic meal ideas that can be ready relatively quickly as well.
Trying to commit to just one more family meal per week, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, can make a big difference. Or, if not a meal, sharing a snack together can infer the same benefits.