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Family Dynamics

Family Dinner Rules

Sitting down to eat together is good for both children and parents.

Key points

  • Family dinner is good for kids' social skills.
  • Mealtime helps establish good eating habits.
  • Get older kids involved in meal prep.

You know that family dinner is a good idea. But too often it doesn't happen. Can you aim for at least five meals together a week?

More than 30 years of research have shown that regular family meals offer many benefits, and eating together is the only single activity that is known to provide all of them at the same time.

Boost your kids' social skills.

At dinner, at least, you can insist that your kids put away their phones. Family meals boost children’s health in a number of ways. An established routine provides structure and a sense of stability, which can be especially important for teens. They may need a supportive environment to talk with their parents—or you may need a good moment to reach out when they’re not wearing headphones. Even if everything is going fine, you’re all learning how and when to communicate, which prepares you for the rough times.

Studies show that children who regularly have family meals are more “well-adjusted.”

The potential benefits include the following:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
  • Lower rates of obesity
  • Better cardiovascular health in teens
  • Bigger vocabulary in preschoolers
  • Healthier eating patterns in young adults

When it comes to teens, family dinners can have powerful effects. For example, in a study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of suicidal thoughts. Kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners.

Help children establish good eating habits.

The family meal can be an effective intervention to combat obesity. It can teach children portion control, help them develop a taste for home-prepared vegetables and whole grains, and discourage indulging in unhealthy snacks. Children won’t listen, of course, if you’re not modeling good habits for them.

Consider putting all of your food in bowls or on platters on the table and allowing your children to serve themselves. Guide them to try some of everything, and show them what appropriate portions look like by what you put on your own plate. If you have a picky eater, encourage her to at least try things, but don’t force the issue.

Make it fun.

When the family laughs and enjoys meal times, one study suggested, children are less likely to be overweight or obese. On the other hand, children who associate meal times with hostility, discipline, or arguing may overeat to compensate. Consider making topics that cause trouble off-limits while eating to strengthen the positive experience around food and meals.

Keep the TV off and put away phones. In one study, American kindergartners who watched TV during dinner were more likely to be overweight by the time they were in third grade. The link between TV-watching during dinner and extra weight also has been reported in Sweden, Finland, and Portugal.

Family meals are good for parents, too.

Healthful eating habits bring rewards to parents: You may feel more energetic and upbeat. Beyond that, you get time to connect with your children, spouse, and other residents of your home.

Make it happen.

You may be worried about your cooking skills or feel too harried or busy to organize a family meal. It may be encouraging to know that even a 20-minute meal can bring good feelings, and you can keep the food simple. Try pressure cookers and air fryers to make interesting meals more easily. Get older kids involved by giving them responsibility for choosing, shopping for, and even preparing (or any one of those tasks) one meal a week. Have your child's friend over for dinner on a regular schedule—perhaps after an after-school activity.

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