Why Family Meals Matter

What is the value of family meals? It goes beyond just the food and nutrition at the meals, it is also a time to talk and connect with each other. Family meals can be any place or time where people gather as a family to eat—it doesn’t have to be a family-style, sit-down dinner!

Studies show that when adolescents and young adults eat family meals, they have a better-quality diet and eat more fruits and vegetables, fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and less fast food. Kids who eat family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely to have healthier weights and dietary patterns compared to kids who share fewer than 3 family meals per week. The benefits of dining together are far greater than that, though. When families sit together, they take time for each other. They build relationships, have conversations and connect with each other, and it doesn’t take a lot of time. The average family meal only takes around 20 minutes. For adolescents, this is a powerful 20 minutes. Eating frequent family meals has been associated with fewer eating disorders and fewer negative health behaviors altogether. Even more interesting, kids who eat family meals have been shown to perform better in school, which is no surprise because the part of their brain that does the thinking and reasoning is most active when they are well-fed.

With four busy kids, and two working parents, my family has to be flexible with our idea of a family meal. I try to make sure that we sit together and eat as often as possible each week. Some meals happen on a blanket on the sidelines, some happen late at night and some are early in the afternoon before the “run around.” As long as we have family, food and conversation, I know that my children benefit. It is also important to remember to find different opportunities to eat together. For many families, dinner may not be the best opportunity for a meal, it may be breakfast.

As a doctor I am often asked, what should family meals include? A balance of foods from the food groups is best. Following the guidelines at choosemyplate.gov is an easy place to start—choose foods from the fruit, vegetable, protein, whole grain and low-fat dairy groups. I suggest choosing from at least three different food groups per meal and one to two food groups for a snack. Variety is important for exposure to new foods, but I like to keep at least one thing in each meal that my kids prefer. This allows them to explore new foods while having the safety of meeting their hunger needs. I try to plan ahead to have a few options ready for breakfast so that as each of them come into the kitchen they can sit at the table and eat. We already know the benefits of breakfast and we start our day connected to each other. This connection helps kids feel grounded, develop identity and develop empathy for others.

It is important to remember that every family meal does not have to have every family member present to be valuable. If one person has an activity that prevents them from being there, the remaining family members can still sit together and eat.

This is the first of a two-part series from Dr. Elizabeth Zmuda, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Read part two: “How to Get Your Kids to Have More Dairy.”