What if there was a single activity you could do at home, requiring no special equipment or training of any kind, that would have lifelong benefits for the physical, emotional, academic and social health of every member of your family? And what if you could start today? Would you do it?
That activity exists, and it’s the family dinner.
Let’s face it: Modern family life is busy. We don’t always have the time or energy to get our families to the table. Between scheduling conflicts, picky eaters, and the stress and work involved in planning, shopping for, cooking and cleaning up from dinnertime, it can often feel easier to just opt out of family meals altogether.
So why bother? What’s so great about family dinner, anyway? Today we’ll share 3 ways it’s good for your family, plus three tips to encourage you that you can incorporate family dinner into your family’s routine.
Family dinner encourages healthier habits and improved body image
Research has shown that when families sit down to eat together on a regular basis, they eat more fruits and vegetables and consumer fewer sugars and trans fats than families who don’t eat together. Those eating habits build a lifelong habit that continues into adulthood.
Family dinner is also a great way to build healthy self-image in kids. Teens who eat with their families have a more positive body image than those who don’t, as well as lower rates of obesity. And kids of all ages show greater self-esteem and resilience than their peers when they come from households that make family meals a priority.
Family dinner can boost GPA
Kids whose families eat together regularly have higher grades and greater academic achievement than their peers. Those benefits start early. Young children learn more vocabulary words through dinner conversations than they do from being read to. Reading with your kids is definitely a worthwhile activity in its own right!
Adults use more sophisticated words when they’re talking over dinner than the vocabulary that shows up in the average picture book. Being involved in mealtime conversations is a real brain-builder for little ones. Plus, the kind of casual storytelling we regularly use in conversations with our families boosts kids’ sequencing skills. This is an important area of development for both reading and math later in life.
Family dinner improves mental health
Getting to the table might be stressful, but once we’re there, research shows that we’re less anxious and have lower rates of depression than our friends and neighbors who don’t have regular family meals. Parents of young children report higher rates of satisfaction in their marriages when they make the effort to have dinner as a family, and teens report feeling more connected to their parents. Elementary students who participate in family meals have stronger social skills. They are also more able to bounce back from bullying than their peers.
And all these boosts to our social and emotional well-being also translate into some real behavioral gains: Teenagers whose families have prioritized mealtimes show fewer risky behaviors (like drinking, drug use and promiscuity) than those whose families don’t have dinner together.
Family meals really do impact the bodies, brains and spirits of every member of the family. But what about all those obstacles–the time, effort and tension that can keep us away from the table?
We’ll share three tips that help take the pressure off of family dinner. Let’s bring it back to what’s important: a time of connection with the whole family.
It doesn’t have to be dinner
The time crunch is real. Evening sports practices, clubs and activities, and late work schedules can all make dinner together feel impossible. But dinner isn’t the only meal in the day! Try:
- Family breakfasts before work and school
- A weekend lunch or brunch
- Afternoon snack time or a family dessert
- One non-negotiable family dinner each week, like Sunday dinner or Friday night pizza
It doesn’t have to be gourmet
Some of the best family meals are the simple ones: Pancakes in your pjs, sandwiches on a picnic, a hot bowl of soup on a chilly day. There’s no need to stress about creating a from-scratch masterpiece every night. Keep things simple with these tips:
- Use shortcuts like rotisserie chicken to build salads, tacos, wraps and other quick meals
- Cook big batches on the weekends and use leftovers wisely
- Keep the ingredients for quick, healthy “fallback meals” on hand: soup in the freezer, jars of pasta sauces, eggs, and pre-sliced vegetables
- Use a loose template to plan meals: Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, and so on. It’s okay to rotate the same 10 or 15 meals if they’re easy, healthy and accepted by most of the people at the table.
Let us help you make it a fun and positive experience
All the great benefits of family dinners come with a condition: mealtimes are only beneficial if they’re nurturing and pleasant for all. Set aside the nagging, bickering and tension to make a welcoming family dinner atmosphere, so you’ll all want to come back to the table another time!
- Have some conversation starters handy, so you don’t get stuck at “How was your day?”
- Try playing a few simple games together. Easy table games like “I Spy” and “Telephone” are a great way to keep everyone engaged, and they don’t require any special equipment.
- Ditch the distractions! Cell phones, tablets and TV should be off the menu unless you’re using your devices to help facilitate the conversation. Looking up a piece of information to settle a good-natured debate is fine; looking at the screen for the rest of the meal isn’t!
- Let go of perfection. Spills, messes, bickering and moods are all an inevitable part of family meals (and family life!). Try to keep it all in perspective, and keep a sense of humor about the little things. There are as many “right” ways to have a family meal as there are families, so embrace and enjoy what your time at the table looks like.
It’s never too late to implement a new positive habit
Whether you gather for dinner or Saturday lunch, five times a week or once, mealtimes can make your family happier, healthier and stronger. If you’ve fallen out of this habit, now is a great time to start. You’ll be glad you did.
The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit initiative started in 2010, champions family dinner as an opportunity for family members to connect with each other through food, fun and conversation about things that matter.
More than 20 years of scientific research shows “why” family mealtimes are so important. The Family Dinner Project provides the “how” for today’s busy families. With nonprofit partners and local champions, The Family Dinner Project team works online and at community events to help families increase the frequency, meaning and long-term benefits of their shared meals. They are based in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatry Academy.
Over the past 25 years, research has shown what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression.
The Family Dinner Project helps families share tips for setting dinnertime goals, overcoming obstacles such as conflicting schedules and engaging everyone in meaningful conversation to improve the frequency and quality of mealtime interaction. You can purchase Eat, Laugh, Talk, the Family Dinner Guidebook on Amazon.