One of my fondest childhood memories is of our nightly ritual, sharing dinner together as a family. I remember setting the table, which was one of my "chores", and sitting down to eat with my Mom, Dad, and older brother. We'd answer questions about our days at school, my parents would chat about work, and we'd laugh as a family over silly things, inside jokes that persisted at our table until we were no longer all living together. Now I've got a 3-year-old daughter, and as I start a family of my own I find it important to me, based on my experience, to maintain the family dinner tradition. But my experience and fond memories aren't the only reason; science also appears to support the fact that family dinners have a variety of benefits for children and for the family as a whole.
The research on this topic is complex, as it is impossible to isolate shared family meals as the sole factor contributing to the benefits associated with it. But it certainly seems to confirm what is instinctually obvious to many of us: family mealtimes nurture the emotional, behavioral, and physical development of children. Eliza Cook and Rachel Dunifon of Cornell University's College of Human Ecology have concluded that, at the very least, family meals contribute to better mental health and less depression in youth. Perhaps most importantly, the gathering of family to prepare and enjoy a meal together provides the space in which to nurture health and happiness, as a forum for communication and shared experiences. Research also shows that family connectedness is associated with decreased high-risk behaviors such as substance use and violence, and fewer psychological problems, including emotional distress and suicidal thoughts.
A long term benefit of family meals is improved health related to healthier eating. Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) points out that home cooking generally yields much healthier foods than restaurant foods, on top of their being filled with love. In my house, the time spent cooking with our daughter is some of the most fun we have as a family, whether it's making banana pancakes in the morning, taco dinners, or our current favorite, Indian anything. Other long term benefits of family meals for children include improved social competency, better academic success, and an increased sense of self-worth. Sounds good, right?!
Sharing family mealtimes together can be challenging in our modern world, and it's not always easy for my family either. My partner is often away traveling for work, leaving me and our daughter on our own. The temptation is there, in these instances, to skip the formal meal in favor of a more casual approach. Even when we're all home together, it seems to take more effort to gather formally, and it can be tough to make it happen all the time. Many families are led by single parents, or two full-time working parents, or parents who grew up without a proper example of what a family meal is all about. Takeout or fast food may be the norm in some families, for ease or other sociocultural reasons. Distractions abound (ahem, TV and cell phones anyone?). But regardless of family structure, history, and habits, and regardless of where family meals are taking place, the priority must be to gather as a family, support one another, share with one another, and help nourish each other.
Here are three easy goals families can work towards to enjoy the many benefits of family mealtimes:
1) Aim for as may family meals as are possible in a week. Since schedules can get crazy, it might be a good idea to set at least one night as a consistent "family meal night", like Sundays. Also remember that breakfasts can alternatively (or additionally!) be enjoyed together as a family when possible.
2) Put cell phones away and turn off the TV! Family meals won't have the ability to create these fruitful benefits if family members are distracted by devices. Putting phones and tablets away, and turning off the TV, shows respect for other family members and creates an environment conducive to bonding.
3) Cook together! The whole family can benefit from spending time in the kitchen, exploring new foods and recipes, and creating healthy dishes together. Involving kids can even help them to be interested in eating more healthy foods.
Don't live with family? No problem. Try weekly meals gathered at a table with friends or roommates. You'll still enjoy the benefits of bonding, social interaction, and healthy home cooked meals.
Cook, E. & Dunifon, R. (2012 ). Parenting In Context. Family Meals Really Make a Difference? Cornell University. College of Human Ecology. Department of Policy Analysis and Management. Retrieved from: https://www.human.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/PAM/Parenting/Family-Mealtimes-2.pdf
Fulkerson, J., et al (2006) Family Dinner Meal Frequency and Adolescent Development: Relationships with Developmental Assets and High-Risk Behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2006). pp. 337-345.
Johnson, R. (2013, May 24). Michael Pollan: Why the family meal is crucial to civilisation. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/may/25/michael-pollan-family-meal-civilisation