Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

The Death of the Family Meal

Does it still count as a family meal if we eat in the car?

I love this photo. A family sits down to dinner together and enjoys each other’s company and conversation while they eat. You’ll notice that no TV is on and that they are actually sitting at a table, looking at each other instead of their iPhones. Finally, all family members are present and accounted for.

Unfortunately, that’s an idyllic dream for most of us. While some of us were blessed with stay-at-home moms (or dads) who had time and loved to cook for their families—and even fewer of us came from environments where the whole family was involved in meal preparation—these days both seem like a rarity.

And for that reason, the decline of the family meal has become a concern in contemporary Western society. As well it should be. We may not all be June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver, dress up for dinner, or have Ward Cleaver as a Dad to impart all of his wisdom during the family meal, but most of us at least “get” the importance of the family meal. The more often families eat together, the less likely the kids are to engage in risky health behaviors like smoking, drinking, or doing drugs, and the more likely they are to eat their veggies and delay having sex. Kids whose families eat together also do better in school and are less likely to suffer from mental disorders like depression and eating disorders. In addition, the more often a family eats together, the more positively the children view their parents and the better the communication between children and parents. But don’t despair if you aren’t currently eating meals as a family. Although the earlier you start the better, it’s never too late. While it might be a bit awkward to start (What are we going to talk about? What should I fix or should I just order pizza? What if the kids bicker the whole time?)—like everything else—it does get easier with practice. Interestingly, the food gets healthier the more you eat meals as a family. Can’t beat that!  

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Of course the caveat here is that a family meal should not only be eaten as a family, but it should be eaten at an actual table—facing each other with no distractions. That’s right—not even the television or your iPhone should be turned on. A “family dinner” doesn’t count if you aren’t actually interacting with each other. It’s more than just sitting at the table, it’s engaging each other in conversation. So while we might applaud the fact that over half of teens eat dinner with their parents at least five nights a week, when the TV is on during that meal, there goes the quality interaction and healthy food. This is unfortunate, as 40% of adults who regularly eat dinner with their children report that the TV is on during dinner.

            Okay. So the rules are:

  • Eat meals together as a family as often as possible
  • At an actual table
  • No TV during mealtime
  • No iPads, iPods, or iPhones either
  • And voila! Healthy meals appear.

The bigger issue is that, many families are faced with the dilemma of someone else consistently being the one to provide their child with food—be it a child care provider, school lunch worker, or Grandma. In fact, 61% of children under age five are in some type of regular child care arrangement. As a result, only fifty-five percent of married parents and forty-seven percent of single parents eat breakfast daily with their preschool-age child. On the plus side, over 80% of preschool age children eat dinner with their parents at least 5 days a week. Unfortunately, this meal may not be at home as over 40% of family food dollars are now spent on food away from the home. And you know what that means: big portions, less healthy food.

So it appears to be more than just eating together as a family; it’s where our children are eating their meals (home or restaurant) and what we’re feeding them. Research suggests that not only are most working parents eating less often with their families, but they also are less likely to encourage their children eat healthy, report lower fruit and vegetable intake, and spend less time on food preparation than do part-time and not-employed parents. Furthermore, the more stressful their job, the more likely parents are to report frequent consumption of sugar-sweetened beverage and fast food. In addition, parents that work long or nonstandard hours (e.g., night shift) are more likely to report missing family meals, skipping meals altogether, eating take-out or restaurant meals or other prepared entrees (e.g., frozen food), and eating while working.

Now that you’re thoroughly depressed, there is some good news. The research benefits listed above came from data on families who ate together 4 or 5 times a week. It doesn’t have to be dinner; it doesn’t have to be every weeknight. If you can just find 4 or 5 times each week you can sit down together as a family for some eating occasion, you’ll reap the benefits. I know you’re busy. I know Molly has soccer practice and John has tae kwon do and you have that big business trip coming up. But just do the best you can to reach that 4 or 5 meals a week target, and I guarantee the benefits will be worth the effort it took to get everyone together for a real family meal.

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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