Below is an excerpt of an interview I did about the benefits of families eating together.
Q: What are the top three reasons a family should have at least one meal together?
I hope we are talking about having at least one meal together a week! Study after study has shown that the more often families eat together the healthier the kids are physically and emotionally.
1) Kids who eat regular meals with their family are less depressed and less likely to act out by doing things like smoke or do drugs. That alone is a good enough reason for me to promote more family meals. But the benefits apparently do not stop there.
2) Kids who participate in regular family meals do better in school, are more confident socially and delay having sex longer. It's not just the kids who benefit, of course.
3) Families who eat together are likely to take more thought into what they are eating and so make better food choices. In other words, they eat more vegetables and less junk.
Q: Families are busy. How can a family find the time to eat together with packed schedules?
A packed schedule may be a challenge but to allow it to be a total road block to doing the right thing for our families is down right irresponsible. The first step is to recognize that the grown ups in the house have to have buy in. In other words, they (usually the parents) have to believe that family meals at least once a week is a top priority. Have a family meeting and discuss with everyone that the goal is to have one meal together a week. Then brain storm what everyone can do to make it happen.
In my family, the older the kids got, the harder it became to have meals together. Weeks started slipping by without a family meal. When we had a family meeting about it we all agreed that Sunday dinner was going to be held sacrosanct. No matter how tempting, no invitation or activity was to be accepted that would interfere with this time. Of course there are exceptions, but once the priority is established you'd be surprised how rarely they occur.
It helps that we usually save our favorite dishes for that day. We involve the kids in meal planning, which means reliable, but healthy comfort food is often on the menu. Everyone is involved in meal prep and cleaning up too.
Be creative – a hard thing to do when we are stressed, that's true, so here are some ideas:
- The weekly family meal does not have to be dinner. You can make it breakfast or brunch.
- You can make it a dinner plus a movie on DVD, watch a sports event, or a favorite TV show. Research suggests that families still get the benefit of the family meal if it's eaten in front of the television!
- You don't even have to cook. Get good takeout and bring it in. You can switch it up depending on what's going on.
The important point that all the studies make is that there is value just to identify the time to sit down as a family for a few hours and eat together. We can always find a way to do that if we want it enough.
Q: Have you seen any visible proof (personal or professional) that eating together as a family elicits some positive result in one or more members of the family?
Absolutely. Professionally, when I work with anxious or depressed adults we look at the stress in their lives. Sometimes I will prescribe setting up a weekly family meal as a stress buster. Often they feel the assignment as a stress increaser! The more reasons they come up with as to why it can't happen, the less likely it is that the person will be able to make other necessary changes to improve their mood. The person who is able to make it happen, despite the challenges, learns quickly that once they make a commitment to improve their lifestyle they have the power to make other healthy changes in their life, too. This empowerment improves their mood which in turn benefits the family.
My best proof is personal.
There have been times when I noticed during dinner that one of my kids was 'off.' Later, privately, I approached them to learn that they were burdened by one thing or another. The family meal provided the window into how my child was feeling, when the busy-ness of our week could easily mask it.
Not every meal is a picture perfect example of a delightful family encounter. We've had meals that were mostly eaten in silence and some where arguments occurred. Usually though, we are all sort of checking in with each other and what is happening in our lives, separately and together. My kids will often say that they want to talk about something but it will wait until Sunday dinner when everyone is together.
Then there are the gems, those "Wow!" moments when a real and wonderful, spontaneous connection is made that never would have happened if we didn't have our weekly meal tradition. We laugh a lot, continue to learn about each other (you were at Woodstock?!) and are amazed at the depth of thinking that comes out of our children's mouths. You can't expect moments like that to spring out of nothing. Having regular family meals provides a fertile ground for such joyful times to bubble up.