Be warned: it could have a long-term impact on your health. Since the beginning of time, family meal times have been a time to share good food and stories, and to relax and unwind with the people you love most. Now research shows there’s more: shared mealtimes are, in fact, critical in terms of our long-term physical and mental wellbeing.
Sadly, however, many of us are opting for ready-to-eat meals in front of the telly instead of spending precious time with our children and other family members.
Children benefit most from eating together
While grabbing a bite on the couch may seem harmless, it certainly is no substitute for a family meal around the table. A number of research studies show that a loss of shared mealtimes can have several negative health consequences – especially for children.
One recent example is the results of the so-called GRECO study, published in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (May2014), which shows that infrequent family meals are an important predictor of childhood overweight and obesity. According to an article entitled “Do family meals really make a difference?” by Eliza Cook and Rachel Dunifon of Cornell University, other research shows that regular family meals could mean your child is 12% less likely to be overweight.
The lowered risk for overweight and obesity seems to be closely linked to the healthier eating habits. Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2011, Fiese, B. &Hammons,A.) shows that children who sit down for meals with the family are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating and 24%more likely to eat healthier foods.
The reality is that once families no longer sit down around a table for a meal, a great many things are lost – that is, not only a healthy, home-cooked meal, but also conversation, shared ideas, learning by example, transmission of cultural values relating to food and good manners, and the art of caring and listening. We tend to forget that the childhood and teenage years is an important learning time, and that young ones learn by watching and copying adults – primarily their parents, grandparents and older siblings.
Teenagers still need family meals
Many families start eating together less often as children reach adolescence. This could be due to employment outside the home (e.g. teenagers who work to earn pocket money), increased responsibilities, pressure to perform at school and in sport, and busy schedules in general.
Irregular mealtimes, excessive snacking, eating away from home (particularly at fast-food restaurants and on street corners from food vendors), over-the-top dieting, eating disorders and skipping meals are often the result. In many instances, the influence of the family is replaced by the influence of peer groups.
Research shows this affects food selection and eating habits, and often leads to unbalanced food intake. It also produces future parents who have no skills in encouraging good eating habits in their own children.
Apart from having a positive effect on teenagers’ physical health (e.g. better nutrition and a healthier weight), a number of studies have shown that eating with the family more frequently is also associated with better psychological wellbeing, a lower risk of substance use and delinquency, and greater academic achievement.
Conversations at the dinner table give parents the opportunity to learn more about what’s going on in their children’s lives and to reinforce positive messages. For this reason alone, eating together as a family remains important as children grow older.
Towards a solution
Are you concerned about the fact that your family no longer eats together regularly? These steps could help you to make family meals a tradition in your home:
Consider calling a family meeting. Ask family members to put forward ideas on how, as a group, you can get together for meals more often. Suggest at least three shared meals a week, if possible. Arrange times that will suit everyone, get ideas for menus, and set ground rules so that the process doesn’t disintegrate.
Focus on quality over quantity: turn off the TV, keep cellphones and other devices away from the dinner table, and try to have gentle, meaningful conversations. Have fun discovering each other again, and remember: the routine of family meals generates feelings of closeness and comfort, and has many important health benefits.