While parents are aware that sitting down to wholesome family meals is important, many don’t realize that the benefits of doing so are unparalleled. Beyond physical health, participating in meals together contributes to better family relationships, emotional health, and academic performance.

Family Meals and Health

Routinely sharing meals as a family results in improved health on multiple levels. Families who make a habit of eating together often have healthier diets, and family meals have a remarkable impact on the nutritional quality of children’s and adolescent’s diets.

Improved Dietary Quality

Sitting down to family meals on a regular basis increases the probability that children and adolescents will make wise food choices.

Family meals are associated with an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, calcium-rich foods, and grains as well as a decreased consumption of fried foods and soda. Thus, frequently eating such meals leads to a higher intake of essential nutrients, including protein, fiber, calcium, folate, iron, and vitamins A, C and E. Engaging in family meals also helps establish and reinforce healthful eating habits among children and adolescents.

Prevention of Obesity

Sitting down for a meal and conversing and interacting with family members, while not distracted by television or other technology, causes children to eat more slowly and pay attention to their internal hunger and fullness cues; this typically results in the ingestion of more nutritious foods and decreases the likelihood of overeating.

According to research, children and adolescents who routinely enjoy meals with their families are considerably less likely to be overweight or obese than those who do not.

Protection against Unhealthy Dietary Habits

Taking part in family meals protects children and adolescents from developing unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders. In fact, having frequent family meals is associated with a lower occurrence of unsafe weight control practices. More specifically, adolescents who eat meals with their families at least five times per week are significantly less likely to suffer from disordered eating, including bingeing and purging, fasting, ingestion of diet pills, and meal skipping.

Additional Benefits of Family Meals

The advantages of family meals extend far beyond improvements in nutritional intake and physical health. Shared meals build connectedness and unity between family members, promote psychological and emotional well-being, enhance academic performance, and provide an opportunity for parents to teach and serve as role models for their children.

Familial Interaction and Bonding

Research reveals that over half of all adolescents think of mealtimes as a time to talk with their family members. Hence, family meals are ideal for facilitating interaction and communication amongst family members, as well as fostering a sense of belonging and togetherness. Eating together aids in the development of a family’s social relationship and promotes feelings of community and family identity. Sharing meals as a family is a simple but effective strategy for maintaining communication and involvement with your children.

Psychological and Emotional Health

Studies show that family meals contribute positively to the psychological and emotional development of young people, and it appears that consistently participating in family meals helps them become better adjusted.

Children and teenagers who habitually eat dinner with their families have a lower probability of engaging in risky behaviors: they are considerably less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or use drugs. In addition, family connectedness, which is strengthened by eating meals together, has been associated with a decreased risk of emotional problems, drug use, violent behaviors, unsafe methods of weight control, sexual activity, and suicidal tendencies. Moreover, involvement in regular family meals results in a lower incidence of depression, low self-esteem, and suicide attempts among youth.

Improved School Performance

Routinely participating in meals as a family can result in improved performance at school among children and adolescents. For instance, adolescents that normally partake in family meals are more likely to earn better grades and have a higher grade point average. Engaging in family meals has even been found to enhance a child’s language and literacy skills. 

A Teaching Opportunity

Family meals provide an invaluable opportunity for parents to teach and role model desirable behaviors to their children, including manners, communication skills, nutrition, and healthy eating habits. In fact, eating well-balanced meals with their families can encourage children and adolescents to become interested in nutrition and health.

Family Meals Must Be a Priority

Taken together, these facts confirm the necessity of regularly enjoying meals as a family. Based upon the research, sharing at least four to five nutritious meals per week confers the greatest benefits; I recommend aiming for five a week. For this to happen, family meals must become a priority.

Considering the multitude of benefits, it is well worth making the time and effort required to ensure that your family sits down to many nourishing meals each week.

About the author: Keeley Drotz is a registered dietitian who lives in McKinney. With over 10 years of experience, her specialization is working with children and families. She recently published her first book, "The Poisoning of Our Children | Fighting the Obesity Epidemic in America," which is about the prevention of childhood obesity and offers suggestions for making family meals a reality. Please visit Keeley’s websites at PoisoningOurChildren.com and TGBGnutrition.com.