One of the first recommendations I often give families who come to my office struggling with their relationship with their children is: “Start eating together as a family a few nights every week.”
I have seen firsthand how sharing meals transforms the lives of families. This recommendation is also based on more than just my lived experience as a therapist. Over the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of research to back up the importance of eating family meals together!
Four main outcomes have been seen in families that share family meals:
1. Eating together as a family boosts vocabulary and literacy skills
Sharing dinner as a family has been shown to help increase a child’s vocabulary, improve their ability to understand stories, and learn how to talk in culturally appropriate and respectful ways to others (if this is modelled at the family dinner).
2. Eating together as a family boosts academic performance
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University researched kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week. In this research, children who had regular family meals were more likely to perform better in school than their peers who did not have this. The students who had family dinners had higher academic performances than their peers who did not have family dinners together.
*The researchers say that family dinner is one piece of the puzzle and can reflect a healthy family culture that would also allow a child to do well in school.
3. Eating together as a family creates healthy eating habits
In addition to boosting literacy skills and academic performance, studies show that sharing a meal at least three times a week helps children develop lifelong healthy eating habits.
Kids who ate regular family dinners were more likely to consume more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. Children were less likely to be overweight or obese than their peers.
Children who had family dinners were more likely to grow up to be adults who ate healthier food, were less likely to be overweight or obese and reported lower rates of disordered eating.
4. Eating together as a family protects children from drugs/alcohol
As a therapist, I have seen how eating together as a family can change family dynamics and help children form long-lasting relationships with their parents. Perhaps this is because it gives children and teens a chance to talk with their parents every night, allows parents to stay in the loop in their child’s life, and reminds children and youth that they are valuable and important to their parents.
Substantial research shows that homes that prioritized family mealtime at least three times per week had children less likely to engage in risky behaviours (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity) in their teenage years.
A 2004 study showed that families who had frequent meals together had children and adolescents who scored lower on tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use. These children also had lower depressive and suicidal behaviour scores than their peers.
Making mealtime magical
You may be reading this and thinking: “I grew up eating together as a family, and it was not magical… my parents yelled at each other and me.”
The real power of family dinner relies on the quality of the interactions during the dinner. Of course, these statistics may not be the same if dinnertime includes yelling at children, being stone-cold towards your partner, or pressuring children academically. As with all things in parenting, family dinners where the parents showed high levels of warmth to their children and high levels of holding boundaries and keeping structure were best.
The critical factor for creating family dinners is not just eating roast beef or spaghetti together; it’s in the interaction you have with your children and family during this time together.
Mealtime doesn’t have to be perfect
I want to assure you that QUALITY MEALTIME with your family doesn’t equal PERFECT MEALTIME. Even if your toddler is crying, your baby is throwing food on the ground, and your preschooler has an attention span of about 10-15 minutes, the conversation this time together can still be valuable.
At dinner (or breakfast/lunch), focus on letting your children know that you are happy to spend time together. Tell them one exciting story about your day, and ask them just one question about themselves.
Even a short, 5-minute dinner routine that your child learns to expect every night can make a huge difference in their life!
Conversation starters for your kids as you eat together
Here are a few conversation starters for family dinners to help you and your kids connect, laugh, and get to know each other better.
- What would you ask me if I said YES to anything right now?
- What is one mistake you made today?
- If you could be any animal, what would you be?
- If you could be any superhero, who would you be?
- If you could be any cartoon character, who would you be?
- What was one new thing you learned today?
- What was something that made you sad today?
- What was one kind thing you saw someone do today?
- What was your favourite part of the day today?
- What was the hardest part of the day?