Mealtimes together can be a luxury for hectic families, yet plenty of research shows that no other hour in your children’s day serves up as many emotional, psychological, and nutritional benefits. And those benefits last a lifetime.
“Researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the health of all family members,” says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. “Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of depression, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem.”
Family meals offer an opportunity to connect, while serving nutritious food and modeling healthy eating. This can lead to “healthier dietary intakes; less use of disordered eating behaviors, such as unhealthy weight-control practices; and stronger indicators of psychosocial well-being,” reports Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, professor and division head of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota and principal investigator of the Project EAT studies on teen welfare.
There isn’t a magic number for family meals, Fishel says, but the benefits accrue with every dinner. Here are four tips for better family meals:
- Make the commitment. Start small with one meal and one conversation, advises Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. Aim to schedule just one mealtime that works for every family member. Let everyone know and add the date to the calendar.
- Make it simple. Family meals don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. What is everyone’s simplest, most loved meal? Cook it and enjoy it together.
- Make it fun. These dinners should be a welcoming time, not a place for stress, arguments, or grilling kids about their grades. Find the joy and keep it going.
- Make it matter. The things you share at dinner can help your relationships endure far beyond the table, says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD.
For other smart ideas on bringing your family together for meals, recipes, and even some engaging conversation topics, check out the Family Dinner Project’s website (TheFamilyDinnerProject.org) and Fishel’s book, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.