Courtesy of almost every family sitcom made in the last 60 years, the family dinner as we know it is an occasion for meatloaf, mashed potatoes, at least one fight over the salt shaker, and a few failed attempts at finding out how school was. Though cliche, this familiar scene highlights an important part of being a family, a meaningful gathering, a sacred time -- dinner. With family dinners on the decline and 59% of Americans reporting that their family today has fewer family dinners than when they were growing up, perhaps it’s time to turn the tables. These nine science-based reasons are proof that, meatloaf or not, family dinners are important.
Eating meals together has the potential to strengthen family bonds as it provides a daily time for the whole family to be together. For younger children, routine family meals can provide a sense of security and a feeling of belonging in the family. Older children and teenagers, too, prefer eating together as a family. In a recent Columbia University study, 71% of teenagers said they consider talking, catching-up, and spending time with family members as the best part of family dinners.
Eating family dinners is associated with healthy dietary food patterns. A 2000 survey found that the nine- to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently consumed more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber. Matthew W. Gillman, MD, the survey’s lead researcher, noted that family dinners allow for both "discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods."
Studies have proven that there’s a significant link between family dinners and academic performance. A report by CASA found that teens who have between five and seven family dinners per week were twice as likely to report receiving mostly A’s and B’s in school, compared to those teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week. In addition, only 9% of teens who ate frequently with their families did poorly in school, according to the report.
Family meals have proven to be perfect opportunities for parents to expose children to different foods and expand their tastes. In a 2003 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children were offered sweet red pepper and asked to rate how much they liked it. Then, each day for the next eight days, they were invited to eat as much of the pepper as they wanted. By the end of the experiment, the children rated the pepper more highly and were eating more of it.
Research examining 5,000 teenagers has shown that when children eat with their parents regularly, they are more likely to be emotionally strong and have better mental health. Teens who ate regular family meals were also more likely to be adjusted, and have good manners and communication skills. This effect is not restricted to the children - mothers who ate with their families often were also found to be happier and less stressed as compared to mothers who did not.
The average restaurant meal can have up to 60% more calories than a homemade meal. Combine the fact that portions served in restaurants are continuing to expand with that fact that when we’re presented with more food, we’re more likely to eat more food, and it becomes clear that eating at home is simply healthier.
When families eat together, young children are less likely to be overweight or obese because these children are eating regular, nutritious, home-cooked meals, and also help in making or serving those meals.
If you have a demanding job, finding time to eat with your family may actually leave you feeling less stressed. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM employees and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office.