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By Dr. Mercola
Solitary dining has become more common as busy families are finding it more challenging to carve out time for family meals, particularly when all adult family members work outside of the home.
Traditionally, family meals have represented much more than just communal eating—they’re a time for good conversation and genuine family bonding.
Unfortunately, today, many meals are consumed at stoplights or in front of the computer—alone. The US ranks 23rd out of 25 countries in the percentage of children who eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week.1
Although solitary meals are occurring on a regular basis now, recent research suggests they are not contributing to you or your children’s well-being. Families that make an effort to eat meals together at least three or four times a week enjoy significant benefits for their health, happiness, and relationships.
The shared interest in preparing and cooking food in traditional ways has been overshadowed by a desire for convenience foods over the past several decades, although evidence suggests those trends might be starting to reverse.
If You’re Eating Alone, You Have Plenty of Company
The family meal hit a low point in the 1950s, when people began to regard cooking dinner for the family as a major inconvenience. As foods became more readily available and storable in the freezer and pantry, the idea of cooking from scratch became almost passé.
Perhaps people are beginning to miss the security and the socialization that family meals impart. Research into eating trends varies substantially, which may suggest that values and attitudes are changing.
The relative infrequency of shared family meals is not associated with a lack of desire for them, as people consistently report fond memories of eating together during their childhood years.
Several recent studies reveal how American families are struggling to find time to eat together. When thinking about the following statistics, consider that 27 percent of households consist of a single person living alone.2
- A new report from NPD3 found that Americans eat more than half of their meals solo; people are the least likely to eat dinner alone, and most likely to eat breakfast and lunch alone (refer to chart below).4
- A 2014 study found that the majority of American households eat meals together less than five days a week.5
- A 2013 Harris Poll6 found that among Americans who live with at least one family member, only 58 percent report eating with others at least four times a week, but 86 percent report sitting down to a dinner together at least once a week. The poll also found that the frequency of family dinners is declining with each generation.
Source: The NPD Group/Enhanced National Eating Trends®
Kids Who Eat Meals with Their Families Enjoy Healthier Eating Patterns and Less Obesity
The 2013 documentary The Family Meal focused largely on the connection between the epidemic of childhood obesity and the role eating dinner with your family could play in curbing it.
Research shows that children who share family meals three or more times a week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range and make better food choices. They’re more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to eat unhealthy ones, and also less likely to develop eating disorders.7
Interestingly, a Cornell University study8 found that families (both adults and children) who eat dinner in their kitchen or dining rooms have significantly lower BMIs than families who eat elsewhere. For boys, remaining at the table until everyone is finished with eating was also associated with a lower BMI.
Researchers at the European Conference on Obesity9 reported that children who don’t eat dinner with their parents at least twice weekly are 40 percent more likely to be overweight than those who do. This might say something about the importance of family rituals and routines for children’s emotional health. In reference to predictable family routines, ScienceDaily10 reported:
“Researchers believe that being cared for in stimulating and nurturing environments in early life, with regular participation in predictable family routines, reflects greater family organization and can provide a sense of security and belonging. It also may positively impact children’s socio-emotional health before school entry and contribute to their future school and life success.”
The Psychological Cost of Eating Alone
Kids who eat meals with their families not only have less obesity, but also fewer psychosocial and behavioral problems—the benefits are truly profound. For example, teens who eat with their families at least five times a week are 40 percent more likely to get A’s and B’s in school than their peers who don’t share family meals. They’re also 42 percent less likely to drink alcohol, 59 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes, 66 percent less likely to try marijuana, and tend to be less depressed.11 Other research shows that with each additional family dinner, adolescents have:12, 13
- Higher self-esteem and life satisfaction
- More trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and better relationships with their parents
- Better vocabulary and academic performance
- Lower teen pregnancy rates and truancy14
- Increased resilience to stress
Family Meals Help Pass Down Healthy Cooking Traditions
The benefit of the family meal comes not only from time spent eating together, but also from the time spent shopping for food, preparing your meals, cleaning up, and even tending a garden. Getting your children involved teaches them about nutrition, as well as how to work together as a family. Children will also learn environmental awareness and the importance of supporting organic and sustainable foods and farms.
Sharing meals gives you an opportunity to pass along special recipes and family traditions that you may have learned from your mother or grandmother. You can teach your children the importance of traditional food preparation methods, such as fermenting, juicing, sprouting seeds, soaking nuts, and preparing raw meals. These lessons are invaluable for building a rich family heritage, as well as giving your children the tools they need to live long, healthy lives.
Family Dinner Is Less About ‘Dinner’ and More About ‘Family’
What is it about family dinners that exerts such a powerful influence on our children? Or is it the family dinner at all? These are the questions professors Ann Meier and Kelly Musick sought to answer by delving deeply into the data. The professors removed variables such as income, time spent with children (meaning, activities such as helping with homework or participating in extracurricular events), how closely the kids were monitored, and overall quality of family relationships. Once all of those factors were stripped away, they examined the impact family dinners have on children’s mental and behavioral health.
Meier and Musick published the results in the Journal of Marriage and Family, and their findings might surprise you.15, 16 They concluded that it’s the family connections that matter, not the meals. In other words, the family dinner is less about the “dinner” and more about the “family.” They identified the following critical requirement:17 “The effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives.”
So, if your family dinner hour consists of nagging about chores and unfinished homework, or everyone texting at the dinner table, or if it’s a battle getting everyone TO the dinner table, it’s unlikely you will see as much benefit. But if your mealtime is instead filled with sharing and genuine caring and connection, and everyone is on board, then the benefits are plentiful. This data does not diminish the value of eating together for your child’s physical health and fostering his appreciation and education about food. But when it comes to the psychosocial factors and relationship dynamics, there is much more to it than simply sharing space at the dinner table.
Clever Mealtime Conversation Starters
If you are looking for ideas on how to corral your family into eating more meals together, The Family Dinner Project (FPD) might be helpful.18 The FDP is a resource aimed at helping families “improve the frequency and quality of their mealtime interactions.” Their site has abundant tips for engaging children of all ages in the entire food preparation process through fun dinner games, recipes, age-specific conversation starters, and even instructions for turning your own kitchen into a makeshift Iron Chef arena! In terms of dinner table conversation, columnist and author Bruce Feiler offers three interesting strategies for stimulating fun and meaningful family talk time:19
- Word a day: Since your child is expected to learn about 3,000 words a year, you can teach him a word a day at the dinner table. Feiler suggests bringing a newspaper or magazine to the table and asking everyone to find a word they don’t know. In this instance, Googling is allowed.
- Autobiography night: Encouraging your child to tell stories about his past successes or how he overcame failure will boost his future performance, so encourage him to tell a “who, what, when, where, why” story at dinner.
- Pain points: Focus on a current “pain point,” which is essentially a difficult situation for someone. For example, your daughter has to do a project with someone she doesn’t like, or your teenage son hasn’t found a date for prom. In the course of the discussion, family members share their own experiences and team up to dissect the dilemma and devise possible solutions, which teach children good problem-solving skills. If no one has a pain point, you might discuss a current event.
Tips for Connecting with Your Child or Adolescent
In today’s complicated world, there are many forces tugging at family relationships, especially when children enter their teenage years. Even the best parents can sometimes be challenged to find a way to connect with a teenager. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute recommends making sure you have at least five positive interactions for every negative one, in any relationship, which I believe is sound advice.20 If you are having challenges connecting with your younger family members—around the dinner table or elsewhere—you might find the following ten principles helpful, which center on compassion, communication, and commitment.21
1. Accept your children’s TEMPERAMENTS 2. Invest TIME with your children 3. Deliberately TOUCH your children every day 4. TEACH your children important values and life lessons 5. Demonstrate TENACITY to your children 6. Foster UNIQUENESS 7. Be careful with RIGIDNESS 8. Embrace RITUALS that foster togetherness 9. Help children develop their LEGACY 10. Model appropriate use of WORDS in your communications with children and in front of them
More Food for Thought
In order for family meals to occur, you must make them a priority. One of my favorite sayings is, “If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail,” and this certainly applies here. Making it possible for your family to eat together means not only shopping ahead of time so you have the food to prepare, but also selecting a time that works for everyone—whenever that may be.
Can’t gather three teenagers together at one time for a family dinner due to math club, soccer, and cheerleading practice? Plan a weekly family breakfast or meet for a bedtime snack. Even one meal on weekends can have a positive impact. Just be creative and make your mealtimes as regular, stress-free and enjoyable as possible!
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