Family-Style Meals Are Good for Grown-Ups, Too

The health benefits of shared meals aren’t just for kids.

Posted Sep 23, 2014

fork and salad
Family meals have proven health benefits for children and teens, including a more nutritious diet and a reduced risk for depression. But what about adults? Researchers are starting to explore that question. Studies suggest that home-cooked, family-style meals promote a better diet in grown-ups, too.

What’s a family meal, anyway?

It’s clear that family mealtime isn’t just for kids. In a recent study, Ohio State University researchers analyzed the eating habits of more than 14,000 adults who lived with at least one family member. The researchers divided the adults into two groups: those who lived with a minor child and those who did not. In both groups, about half of the families ate a meal together six or seven days per week.

The Ohio State researchers limited their study to adults who lived with someone to whom they were related by blood, marriage, adoption or legal guardianship. But one-third of U.S. households now consist of either a single adult or multiple unrelated individuals. Does that mean they all miss out on the health benefits of “family” meals? Probably not.

Researchers still need to tease out exactly which elements of family meals contribute to better well-being. Some likely contributors are:

  • Having frequent meals with the same individual(s), week in and week out: Shared meals help cement relationships, and there is a well-established link between social connectedness and enhanced health. Studies of family meals in children and teens suggest that it’s best to eat together at least three days per week. If your schedules prevent you from having dinner together that often, consider other options, such as a light evening snack or a lazy weekend brunch.
  • Engaging in table talk: As with other opportunities to connect, you get out of family mealtimes what you put into them. One study found that distractions at the dinner table—such as texting, watching TV or listening to music through earphones—were associated with higher BMIs (a measure of body fatness) in adults.
  • Eating home-cooking: Fast food and take-out meals are often loaded with sodium and unhealthy fats as well as light on fruits and vegetables. One key to getting health benefits from dining-in may be preparing your own more nutritious, less processed meals rather than stopping at a drive-thru. You don’t have to be a gourmet cook, either. Anyone can throw together a salad or toss chicken and veggies on the grill.
    Need inspiration? The American Heart Association offers quick and easy recipes with step-by-step videos on its Simple Cooking with Heart website.

These characteristics could apply to spouses or a parent and child who regularly sit down for a nice, well-balanced meal at home. But they could apply equally well to unmarried couples or close friends who do the same. The implication is that you don’t necessarily have to live with a relative to reap the rewards of sharing family-style meals.

Dishing up a better diet

So what are the possible benefits of eating dinner at home with family or friends? A recent review article in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that, across the lifespan, eating family-style meals is associated with having a healthier diet. In studies of young and middle-aged adults, sharing meals frequently has been linked to:

  • Higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, milk products, whole grains and fiber
  • Lower consumption of snacks and soft drinks
  • Less frequent fast-food meals

Obviously, those eating habits aren’t an automatic consequence of dining in. You still have to make good choices at the supermarket and in the kitchen. If you’re motivated to improve your diet, however, it’s much simpler to do so when you control the ingredients.

Linda Wasmer Andrews has been writing about health, psychology and the intersection between the two for more than 30 years. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.