Mealtime represents more than just a time to eat. Mealtime is a social gathering with the food we consume along with service in abundance and hospitality. Conversations, laughter, and togetherness are elicited when friends and family gather around a table to share a meal. Unfortunately, as Americans, we live in a fast-paced society where we often do not have time to sit down and eat. We eat in our cars, on the go and “fit” food into our busy daily schedules, instead of scheduling our day around our meals. Food not only nourishes our physical bodies but also fosters a social bind, bringing people together. It can also have a lasting impact on children and family values. 

Research in many different fields ranging from psychology to chronic disease prevention has found that family meals are a gateway to establishing a plethora of lifelong healthy behaviors in children. It is estimated that two-thirds of American children’s daily food is prepared at home, but as children enter adolescence, food bought and consumed outside of the house tend to increase. In a study with NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the  Harvard School of Public Health, only 61 percent of children have dinner with the family around a table on any given night. Since a significant number of food is consumed at home, family meals make an excellent opportunity to boost habits that affect good health across the board. From table manners and communication skills to knowledge about food and cooking, family meals can teach many lifelong lessons to children and can be an excellent way for families to bond on a daily basis.  In addition, here are a few other positive implications of family meals besides the social aspects:

Family meals boost academic performance

Parents conversing with their young children at the dinner table have been shown to increase vocabulary more than reading storybooks aloud, particularly with more complex words. An increased frequency of family meals has also demonstrated a strong positive association with academic performance. The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found that adolescents who eat family meals at least five evenings per week are twice as likely to earn “A” grades than those who ate family dinners fewer than twice per week. 

Family meals foster emotional health

The frequency of family meals has an inverse relationship with depression, violent behaviors, and eating disorders. The CASA research group also found that teens who participated in more frequent family dining have lower rates of drug abuse, alcohol consumption, and smoking.

Family meals help to influence nutritional choices

Family meals are linked with food intake that reflects high nutritional value. Children who dine with their parent(s) at the dinner table tend to consume more fruits and vegetables, which has been associated with chronic disease prevention. Family mealtime is an excellent environment to introduce children to new foods that help to sustain their bodies.

The message for parents couldn’t be any clearer…it is more important than ever to sit down to dinner and engage your children in conversation about their lives, their friends, their school; and talk. “Ask questions and listen to their answer,” says Kathleen Ferrigno, CASA’s Director of Marketing who directs the Family Day-A-Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children Initiative. “The magic that happens over family dinners is not [about] the food on the table, but the communication and conversations around it.”

Source: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA): The Importance of Family Dinners VI & The Importance of Family Dinners IV, a report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA*) at Columbia University