Conversation, togetherness, relationship building, and healthful eating are just a few of the benefits family mealtimes provide. In today’s hectic lifestyle, it can be challenging to bring the family together for a shared meal; however, the benefits may be worth the extra effort.
In the United States today, 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese, putting them at an increased risk for a multitude of short- and long-term health consequences. These health consequences span beyond physical health and can affect psychosocial or developmental factors in childhood as well. Family mealtimes provide an environment that has been found to have a protective effect on both physical and psychosocial factors. In fact, the evidence is strong enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics Expert Committee has included the encouragement of regular family mealtimes in their childhood obesity prevention and treatment recommendations.
Defining Family Meals
A family meal is defined as one that is shared with at least one child and one caregiver present. Whether this meal takes place as a picnic in the park or at a kitchen table, a family meal is one that is free of outside distractions and allows the child and caregiver to connect and share a healthy meal.
Benefits of Family Meals—Nutrition and Beyond
Family mealtimes are a great opportunity to improve the physical, social, and developmental health of children. Studies show that children who share three or more family meals per week are more likely to have a healthy weight and a healthier diet than those who share fewer than three family meals. These healthier habits include eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as having breakfast more often. Involving children in food preparation for family meals can increase dietary quality and improve eating patterns among children.
In addition, children who take part in family meals also decrease their risk for tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use, low grade point average, depressive symptoms, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders. Overall, family meals lead to higher self-esteem and a greater sense of resilience—or ability to bounce back from hardships—in children. At the family level, these shared meals create a sense of togetherness and generally improve family relationships.
Maximizing the Health Benefits of Family Meals
Family meals are best shared at the dinner table, without electronics, and with the television off. Positive interactions between children and their caregivers can further benefit child health. These include positive reinforcement of child eating habits, feelings of warmth at the dinner table, and group enjoyment of the meal.
The dinner table is not limited to a traditional table in the kitchen. It can be around a kitchen island, outside on a patio, or even on a blanket in the yard. The key is to eat together without distractions such as television, phones, or videogames, in an environment where positive reinforcement can be achieved for your family.
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Barlow, S.E. (2007). Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity: Summary Report. Pediatrics, 120(Supplement), S164-S192. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2329C.
Hales, C.M., Carroll, M.D., Fryar, C.D., & Ogden, C.L. (2017). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief, (288),1-8. doi:10.1017/S1368980017000088.
Berge, A.J.M., & Rowley, S. (2014) Childhood obesity and interpersonal dynamics during family meals. Pediatrics, 134(5), 923-932. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1936.
Eisenberg, M., Olson, R., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Bearinger, L. (2004). Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Arch Ped Adolesc Med J., 158, 792–796.