10 Reasons Why You Should Carve Out Time for Family Meals
Here's why you shouldn't write them off entirely—plus, why and how to change your definition of what family meals really are.
You know that time spent together as a family is important—and also that sharing regular meals together is particularly beneficial. But just how valuable is it that you all gather around one table and eat together? Because life is busy—and between your work, after-school kid activities, picky eaters, and the stress of putting together a real meal—being a short-order cook and eating over the kitchen sink actually might sound semi-appealing. Truth be told, differing schedules is the top reason why families—with and without kids—don't eat together at home, per a Food Marketing Institute Foundation white paper.
Pictured recipe: Alphabet Soup
"Gathering around the table is an important part of connecting as a family, and in the last decade, studies have proven what some parents always have suspected: Family dinners are important," says Liz Weiss, MS, RDN and the voice behind the family food podcast and blog, Liz's Healthy Table.
Related: A Month of Healthy Dinners for Kids
Here are 10 reasons why you should make family meals a priority.
But, rest assured, it's not as stress-inducing as it sounds. We promise.
1. Your kids will make healthier food choices.
Eating more family meals is associated with a greater intake of healthier foods, and especially those good-for-you fruits and vegetables. "The key is to keep things positive. Research from the University of Illinois finds that setting a happy emotional tone at the table increases the positive effects of families eating together," says Weiss. In fact, children in families with more positive mealtimes ate one more serving of a healthful food (think: fruits, vegetables), as compared with children in families with less positive family mealtimes.
2. They're more likely to be at a healthy weight.
According to research published in the journal Pediatrics (which looked at 17 studies and over 180,000 children and adolescents), kids who share 3 or more family meals a week are more likely to be in a "normal" weight range. Plus, other findings suggest that when you eat at home more often, you're less likely to suffer from obesity—as are your children.
Related: Easy Breakfast Recipes for Kids
3. Kids are less likely to develop an eating disorder.
"Shared family meals are beneficial to the long-term health of adolescents, including help them be less likely to develop some type of disordered eating" says Holley Grainger, MS, RD, of Cleverful Living with Holley. That same review study, published in Pediatrics, found that kids who eat at least 5 family meals a week are 35 percent less likely to develop disordered eating—compared to their counterparts who ate only a few family meals each week.
4. Your kids may score higher grades.
Family meals not only cultivate healthy eating habits in children and adolescents, but also could foster better grades in school. The research isn't conclusive, though, as some findings show little to no benefit on grades when families regularly dine together. Still, other findings suggests regular family meals helps kids to fare better on mental health measures.
5. Teens have lower rates of drug and alcohol use.
"Family dinners nurture body and soul—and in teens specifically, those who regularly eat with their families have lower rates of drug and alcohol use," says Weiss. In fact, research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who ate a family meal infrequently (i.e., anything under 3 meals a week) were more likely to abuse prescription drugs (by 3.5 times), as well as use illegal drugs, marijuana (by 3 times), alcohol (1.5 times likelier), and tobacco (more than 2.5 times).
6. Family meals and dinner are not synonymous.
Now that you've read through all the benefits of eating regular family meals, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed and also thinking, "how will I cobble together the time to make, and clean up, all of those?" The good news is that family meals does not only equal just dinner. That's right: think outside the box to breakfast and lunch, too. "The research that shows the benefits of family meals doesn't actually narrow down mealtime to just dinner—it also includes breakfast and lunch," says Grainger. Plus, much of the research finds there's great benefit with just three family meals per week—and remember weekends count as well.
7. A little planning takes big pressure off.
You don't have to prepare seven perfectly-portioned dinner mains with side dishes included. "I prepare different parts of my meals and mix and match," says Amanda Keefer, host of the Healthy Family Project Podcast. "For example, I'll make a big portion of ground turkey with mild seasoning and use it for omelets, salads, tacos, pasta dishes, rice bowls and more. Getting dinner on the table seems less daunting when I know the main dish is prepared and I just need to whip up a quick side of rice, roasted veggies or pasta."
8. When you make it a priority, they will too.
If you consistently, and positively, encourage family meals, with time your children will prioritize them, too. One way to help bring everyone together: "Keep family members involved," says Weiss. Need inspiration? Let family members customize their own meals. "Set out build-your-own meal 'bars' so kids can design dinner to their liking. Some examples include build-your-own pizzas, tacos, twice-baked potatoes, pasta salads, and protein bowls. This strategy works especially well for preschool children who love getting their hands dirty," says Weiss.
9. You create lifelong memories.
For your children, yes, but also for you! "Encouraging families to come to the dinner table more often and make it through dinner happily sets families up for a lifetime of joyful mealtime memories," explains Weiss. Try to keep the recipes you make fun and familiar so even the pickiest eaters are more willing to take that very first bite. Add to the memories by making "mealtime interactive so kids of all ages can roll up their sleeves, don their aprons, and assist with the meal prep and cooking," adds Weiss.
10. You don't need perfection.
Cut yourself—and your meals—some slack. "Family meals don't have to be fancy or even the ideal picture of health every time," says Grainger. Yes, even a bowl of cereal eaten together around the table counts. The key is eating together with the majority of your family members versus all eating alone, or no one eating at all.
Read more: Top 10 Healthiest Foods for Kids