One family I know never eats together. Ever.
The entire family “hunts” for food on their own … every day.
If your family operates this way, your children are more likely to become obese, experiment with drugs, develop eating disorders, and fail classes.
As a whole, Americans eat more than half of their meals alone. The frequency of family dinners declines with every generation.
Fight this trend.
Here are seven great reasons to make family meals a priority:
#1: Family meals stabilize your children emotionally.
Children who eat meals with their families resist depression, suicide, pre-marital sex, and eating disorders better than children who eat alone.
If your child feels down or depressed, you can catch it early by observing and spending time with them during family dinners.
The same holds true for eating disorders. Parents who eat with their teenagers regularly catch eating disorders early and help tackle the underlying causes, according to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a doctor and professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.
Eating just three to four meals together every week can save your children from these painful experiences.
#2: Cooking and eating together keeps your children healthy.
Children who eat dinner with their parents consume more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods … even when they eat out.
Home-cooked meals provide even more key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber.
Time around the table also gives you the opportunity to teach your children about nutrition and healthy foods.
While eating out may be convenient, it drastically increases your calorie intake.
The average restaurant meal contains 60 percent more calories than a home-cooked meal. Larger portion sizes don’t help. Once food is on your plate, it’s much harder to resist eating it.
Perhaps you avoid restaurants, but you eat on the go a lot.
According to an article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women ate more slowly and consumed fewer calories when they ate sitting down than when they ate on the go.
And even if you’re eating frozen dinners on your own at home, you and your children will tend to eat faster, consume more calories and less veggies, and cling to your stress and emotional turmoil more than when you share a meal together. Not to mention that store-bought pre-packaged foods are laden with scads of additives, preservatives, and GMOs that can wreck your health.
Eating dinner at your kitchen or dining room table prevents obesity.
Adults and children who eat at their kitchen or dining room tables have a lower Body Mass Index (the weight-to-height ratio used to determine if you are too heavy or too light), according to a study performed by Cornell University.
Boys who stay at the table until everyone is finished eating have an even lower Body Mass Index, according to the study.
If your children don’t eat dinner with you at least twice a week, they are 40 percent more likely to become obese, according to the European Conference on Obesity.
#3: New recipes expand your family’s palate.
Have picky eaters?
Family meals provide the perfect opportunity for your family to try new foods and recipes.
The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that if you consistently expose your children to a new food, they will start to enjoy it – even if they don’t like it at first. So don’t give in to your picky eaters.
#4: Family meals help your children resist peer pressure.
Eating family dinners at least five times a week drastically lowers your teenager’s chances of smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Teenagers who eat alone are 3½ times more likely to abuse prescription drugs, 3 times more likely to use marijuana, 2½ times more likely to smoke cigarettes, and 1½ times more likely to try alcohol, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.
In contrast, teenagers and adolescents who eat with their families have:
- Higher self-esteem
- Better relationships with their parents
- Better vocabulary and academic performance
- Lower rates of teen pregnancy and truancy
- Better resilience in the face of stressful situations
#5: Family conversations improve your children’s learning.
Children who eat with their parents at least five times a week are 40 percent more likely to get A’s and B’s in school than children who don’t share family meals.
Of teenagers who eat fewer than 3 family meals a week, 20 percent get C’s or lower on their report cards.
Of teenagers who eat more than 3 family meals a week, only 9 percent get C’s or lower, according to CASA.
During family meals, your children absorb what you say. They learn how to use words. Studies show that dinner conversation builds your children’s vocabulary even more than reading does.
If you fail to eat meals together, you miss one of the best opportunities on the planet for passing on spiritual and moral values to your children.
Don’t know what to talk about? Try one of these conversation starters:
- Word a day: Bring a newspaper or magazine to the table and ask everyone to find a word they don’t know. Try to figure it out together. If you get stuck, use a dictionary.
- Autobiography night: Take turns telling stories about past successes or lessons. Tell your children how you met your spouse or what your first job was like.
- Pain points: Focus on a difficult situation someone in your family is going through. (For example, your daughter has a lab partner she doesn’t like or your son hasn’t gotten into his favorite college.) Share your own experiences and work together to brainstorm possible solutions.
- Name night: Explain how and why you chose your child’s name. Tell your child what his name means and why it’s significant.
- Scripture memory/verse of the day: Take turns quoting verses you or your children are memorizing. Ask them questions about what the verses mean. Engage them in discussions about how the verses apply to their daily life.
#6: Eating together relieves stress for you, your spouse, and your kids.
Sitting down to a family meal helps working parents release tension and stress from the office.
To maximize this time, eat your meals away from your TV. When you watch TV, you are still “plugged in.” Unplug, sit at the table, and engage with your family. Insist that everyone leave their phone in their room during mealtime. You will start to unwind and relax.
If you or your spouse truly can’t leave the office early enough to eat dinner with your kids before bedtime, try eating breakfast together. Or schedule weekend picnics.
#7: Cooking together helps you pass down family traditions.
Sharing meals gives you the opportunity to teach special family recipes and traditions.
Don’t let your great-grandma’s recipe go to waste. Teach your children how to make it. These lessons build a rich family heritage and provide your children with strong practical skills.
Life is busy. Younger children demand your attention. Older children fill their schedules with activities. But don’t give up on family meals. Make them a priority.
Eliminate excuses by planning meals and shopping ahead for ingredients. As much as possible, keep healthy meats and frozen veggies in your freezer and other staples in your pantry. Set a time that works for everyone’s schedule – even if it’s breakfast or a bedtime snack. If you can swing it, doing both breakfast and dinner is best.
For a few years, my husband was fortunate enough to work just three miles from home, and hardly had any traffic along his route. So he was able to come home for lunch several days a week when our children were young. That was a real blessing, because I was running a piano school and was often teaching until bedtime. Meanwhile, he got to have both lunch and dinner with our children.
Make family dinners special. Set your cell phones aside. Don’t nag your children about chores and unfinished homework. Make your children feel loved and welcomed at the table.
Even one meal a week together can positively impact your family. But strive for as many as possible.