Family Meals: More Than Just Good Food
Family meals provide the most consistent protective factor against stress and adversity for a family. The research is conclusive and impressive – families who eat together reap many benefits: nutritionally, behaviourally, and developmentally.
The nutritional benefits include:
- Lower risk of obesity
- Increased intake of fruit and vegetables
- Decreased intake of fried foods
- Decreased intake of sodas
- Higher intake of protein, calcium, and fibre
Our bodies, especially those of children, require specific amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals, and fiber to function well and develop in healthy ways. Many children and adults are not getting the needed quality fuel to produce healthy results. Without the proper nutrition our bodies do not have what they need to give us what we want – energy, vitality, and healthy development and functioning.
Family meals predict a child’s behaviour more than church attendance or school grades. The behavioural benefits include:
- Increased reading readiness and academic success
- Increased chance of graduating from high school
- Decreased use of drugs and alcohol
- Strengthened family relationships
- Children will try new foods when they are enjoying being together.
The conversation around the table allows everyone to learn about their family history and encourages connection with extended family, ethnic heritage, and community of faith. Children learn social and life skills such as responsibility and teamwork when encouraged to participate in meal preparation and clean up.
Asking everyone to share something they enjoyed that day helps children develop language skills. Rhonda Broad, a local Home Economist, puts it this way: "as a parent, the value of sharing dinnertime with my children was how much I learned about them, their ideas, their friends, and any issues on their minds. If I just asked how their day went, it was always – fine, and I learned nothing about how things were really going for them."
Children feel they have more control over their environment when they have an active voice within the family - making them part of the decision of what to have for a meal, how to prepare it, and who is to participate in what way rather than asking them what they want.
The mental wellness or developmental benefits for every member of the family are even more impressive:
- Lower risk of depression
- Lower risk of suicide
- Higher self-esteem
- Increased emotional stability
- Better psychological adjustment
Children who eat dinner with at least one parent 5 to 6 times per week are more likely to acknowledge and follow the boundaries and expectations set by their parent(s). A decrease in high-risk behaviours correlates with the amount of time spent with family, especially during family dinners.
All of these findings apply equally to toddlers, school-age children, teenagers, and young adults, as well as to parent(s) and extended family members. Some shared meals are better than none - plan what you can and keep trying to increase the number of opportunities for eating together. If having dinner together is a challenge; try sharing breakfast, lunch, or late night snacks. The key is to balance work and other obligations with family time.
Food is not only about nutrition for the body but rather about nourishing the whole person. Nutritious family meals nourish the body, the mind, and the spirit. If you have not considered it before, now is the time. Plan the next family meal and at that meal plan the next one and so on. It is easier to set and continue with the pattern if started when children are young. However, it is never too late!
I would appreciate receiving readers’ suggestions on how they balance their schedules to make family meals happen on a regular basis. Please share your experiences with healthy and simple family meal ideas that work for you and your family. Thank you!
Anne Marie Hartford is the executive director of Family Enrichment.
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