Eating together provides structure that helps both children and adults develop sound eating patterns, resulting in regular mealtimes and less solitary munching in front of the computer or the TV. “When children have family meals growing up, they are more likely to eat regularly scheduled meals as adults,” says Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, a family therapist and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. “People who grab food when they happen to think about it or absentmindedly snack instead of taking the time to sit down and eat don’t do as well with diet quality and weight maintenance.”
Experts suspect that eating as a family provides other food-related lessons as well. “The ritual of preparing family meals teaches your children how to cook and that good food is important,” says Helaine R. H. Rockett, MS, RD, FADA, nutrition research manager at Harvard Medical School’s Channing Laboratory. “It also provides delicious memories. Often, the foods served at home become lifelong favorites because of the love and care of the person who prepared them.”
Chance to connect
The health benefits of family meals go beyond the physical. A 2004 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study found families who regularly eat together are closer than those who eat separately. To measure “family connectedness,” University of Minnesota researchers asked questions of the children, such as how much they thought their parent(s) cared about them or if they thought they could talk to a parent about their problems, then ranked answers on a four-point scale and correlated them with frequency of family meals. Those who answered in the positive were more likely to eat regularly with parents and siblings.
“Sitting down to a meal together provides an opportunity to connect and talk with your kids and find out what’s going on in their lives,” says Neumark-Sztainer. Almost half the teens participating in the Columbia study felt that dinner was the best time to talk with parents about important issues. “Because it’s at the end of the day, dinner provides a special opportunity,” Rockett says. “That’s when we’re not running off to go to school, work, or the next event, so we can really enjoy each other’s company.”
Eating together also helps socialization. “The dining table is where children get their parents’ undivided attention, learn manners and how to behave positively in a group,” Satter says. Findings from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study showed that children who regularly dine with their families spend more time involved in academic pursuits, such as homework and reading. Also, those who frequently ate with their families had better grades and lower rates of depression, and they were less likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. And girls from homes where family meals were the norm had higher self-esteem and fewer eating disorders.