Although experts frequently tout the benefits of family meals, how often do you actually sit down around the table with those you love? The answer is probably “not as much as I’d like,” or maybe even only for major holidays like Thanksgiving. But social dining isn’t just for fun; science is actually starting to measure the amazing perks of eating together.
Eating Together Can Inspire Healthier Food Choices
According to Catherine Rogers, PhD, RD, an assistant professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, the research on social and family meals is really in its infancy. “The vast majority so far has focused on children and adolescents,” she says of the mostly-observational early studies. “However, the benefits are starting to show.”
On the purely nutritional side, Rogers says the research has shown “a positive association between frequency of family meals and the consumption of nutritious foods,” in addition to a decrease in unhealthy choices like sugar-sweetened beverages and fried foods. “We also see a decrease in disordered eating,” she explains.
Sit-Down Meals Can Lead to Better Behavior
The benefits also seem to extend beyond what and how kids eat. “Studies also show an increase in academic performance with family meal frequency, and a decrease in risky behaviors like substance abuse,” says Rogers. For instance, according to an analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who do not have meals with their parents regularly are significantly more likely to skip school.
Of course, since this research is a relatively new realm of study, Rogers says no one’s 100 percent sure why family meals are so powerful. “It’s a dynamic time together, where there’s a lot going on,” she explains. “It could be the organizational and planning component of the family meal, where there’s an assignment of roles and expectations. You’re expected to participate, and there’s a lot of indirect learning there.”
Parties of Two Can Experience Benefits, Too
Research shows families aren’t the only groups that can see benefits from social dining. Even those sitting at tables for two have been known to make healthier food choices. One study shows women eat fewer calories when they’re dining with a man than when they eat with other women. And an older study reports both men and women eat less in front of a stranger of the opposite sex. (Blind dates are good for something!)
Try to Eat Together More Often
No matter the reason for the benefits, aiming to eat together as much as you can is one of the best moves you can make as a family or as a single person. Not only can you bond, but you’re also likely to see strong behavioral and nutritional benefits for your children and partners. How can you pull it off more often? Rogers says there are a few ways you can try to incorporate more structured, healthy meals with your kids.
First, talk about the benefits with friends and other families in your community, and enlist your neighbors to help with rotating sit-down meals. In the summer, you might plan larger picnics together—or perhaps you can have buffets or potlucks, where everyone contributes. “For parents with kids, there’s a lot less stress if you’re going to someone else’s house for dinner one or two days a week,” says Rogers.
Another idea is to plan ahead and make it a full, fun bonding event for the family—and be creative. Rogers says it’s far more likely that you’ll actually all gather for family dinner if you have the supplies and utensils ahead of time to cook the meal. So think about a potential cultural theme, like Indian, Mexican or Asian-Fusion, for instance, as you grocery shop for the week.
Simply Focus on Being Together
The most important ingredient? Don’t overthink it, or stress too much. “So many parents see family meals as an item they need to check off their checklist,” says Rogers. “Use it instead as a time to bond with your children or your partner, engage with them in making the meal, and allow them to make healthy nutrition decisions on their own.” It’s the simple things that matter most.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.