By Matthew Hutson, published on January 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
As dining out overtakes gathering 'round the hearth, we fill ourselves with unhealthier food, and more of it. Meals at restaurants typically contain more sodium, saturated fat, and calories than home-prepared food and come in larger portions. And when we stay in, we often forage on our own. A frozen pizza here, some leftover Chinese there. But few rituals have such far-reaching effects as the family dinner; breaking bread together not only encourages healthy eating habits but also bolsters kids' intellectual development and bonds families via rich social narratives that can last for generations.
Family meals are a great way to model good eating behavior, with long-lasting consequences: Young adults who had more family meals as adolescents consume more fruits and veggies, according to a report from the University of Minnesota. And the benefits don't stop with diet. Other studies show better grades, higher self-esteem, and less substance abuse in kids who dine four or more times a week with their families. It's hard to say for sure whether meals are responsible for these effects, but the researchers have made efforts to control for overall family connectedness.
If you've got teenagers, you can expect some grumbling, but there's a dirty little secret you should know: They want to hang out with you. Maybe not at the mall, but definitely at the dinner table. National surveys show that teens want to spend more time with their families and that family meals are one of their favorite family activities.
So get everyone involved. Kids who help prepare dinners tend to have healthier diets, and learn responsibility. "We no longer live in a world where the mother stays home and cooks," says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of the University of Minnesota. "So if we're going to have more family meals, we need to find creative ways of making it happen."
Scheduling and preparing group meals encourages you to include all the food groups in decent proportions. "It doesn't have to be an elaborate meal," Neumark-Sztainer says. "You can pick up a rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad at the grocery store. Or use just basic foods, like bread and cheese and vegetables to make sandwiches, and maybe some soup."
"People feel, 'I don't have time to do this,' " says Barbara Fiese, a psychologist at Syracuse University. "The expectation is that it's going to be a long, drawn-out, elaborate affair, but in reality it's not." The average meal lasts only 20 minutes. "A lot happens in that very brief period of time." Everyone feels included, lines of communication open, concerns leak out. It's a great opportunity for problem solving.
According to Fiese, "It's also a time when family members tell jokes, family stories are created, and kids learn about family history. That's really how a family identity is created."