Eating together provides benefits beyond nutrition.
Credit: 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. 

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. 

Eating together every day is optimal, but experts like Rockett and Neumark-Sztainer believe that even just four family meals a week is a worthwhile goal. (Four is the cutoff point in studies that predicted better outcomes, according to Neumark-Sztainer.) Although our modern lives may seem to be busier than ever, scheduling time for togetherness at the table pays dividends. “The biggest obstacle to family meals is that parents don’t realize how much they matter,” says Satter. “Family meals aren’t just about food, they’re about family.”

Table tactic: Avoid food fights.
At mealtime, maintain a clear division of responsibilities. “Adults are responsible for providing healthful food on a regular schedule, while the kids’ job is to decide to eat it or not,” Blatner says. Keep in mind that good nutrition happens over a matter of days, not in the course of a single meal. So skipping a meal (or occasionally ignoring a side of peas) won’t make much of a difference over time if green beans, carrots, and other nutritious foods make regular mealtime appearances. Children are naturally erratic eaters, eating more some days than others, Satter says. Consistently giving them healthful foods and empowering them to decide which and how much of those foods to eat can help prevent food-related power struggles.

Table tactic: Turn off the TV. Or not.
Although television is often blamed for the perceived decline in family meals, a study published last year in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found families benefit from mealtime togetherness, regardless of whether the television is on or off. Among the 5,000 children and teens whose eating habits were analyzed, 35 percent reported watching television during meals. However, those whose families watched television during meals ate foods only slightly less healthful than those whose families turned off the tube. Children who ate alone consumed far fewer vegetables and calcium-rich foods.