Photography: Becky Luigart-Stayner
This holiday season, one of the most valuable gifts you’ll give your family won’t come wrapped in a box or have a card attached. Instead, it will happen around your dining table, where you’ll sit down to share a meal, conversation, and traditions with the people who matter most to you. And as special as family meals are throughout the holidays, they can also significantly enhance the life of your family every day.
“Families who eat together have healthier, more balanced diets,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Making family mealtime a priority not only improves everyone’s physical health, but it also contributes to their overall well-being and mental health.”
Opportunity to eat better
“In years past, it may seem that families gathered around the table more often than they do today,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, professor of community nutrition intervention at the University of Minnesota. “But family meals are making a comeback.” A 2007 Columbia University survey of more than 1,500 teens and parents found that 59 percent of teens eat dinner with their families at least five times a week, an increase of 12 percent over the last decade. Adolescents eat 65 percent of their meals at home, according to a 2006 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. And we’re cooking most of the meals we eat at home.
A 2006 Harris Interactive Poll of 3,152 adults found that 93 percent of family meals are still cooked at home. More meals prepared and eaten together means better nutrition, more control over what’s eaten, and less weight gain for the whole family. A 2000 Harvard Medical School study of more than 16,000 boys and girls aged nine to 14 reveals adolescents who shared frequent meals with their families ate more fruits and vegetables and less fried food, saturated fat, and trans fat. They also consumed more calcium, iron, folate, fiber, and vitamins C, E, B6, and B12.
What’s more, researchers speculate that families who eat together often are more likely to talk about nutrition at the dinner table than families who select individual meals from the kitchen, then go their separate ways. These valuable lessons carry over into adulthood. When ¬researchers from the University of Minnesota tracked the eating habits of 1,700 adolescents into their early adult years, they found those who dined often with their families ate more produce, routinely ate breakfast, and drank less soda as young adults.