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4 Health Benefits of Eating Meals as a Family

What if there were something families could do to improve everyone’s health? To reduce risky behavior in their teenagers? To be more mentally healthy overall? 

There is something. 

I’m referring to the family meal, a time when people gather to eat together. Shared family meals have many health benefits, both physical and emotional.

In recent years, holiday gatherings may have felt different for many of us. Instead of extended family and friends joining around a table, some holidays felt more like an ordinary meal with just household members present. 

It took me a while, but in the spirit of gratitude, I realized that a family meal, by definition, is already special. It’s not always peaceful. But it’s definitely special.

Research supports this. 

In fact, regular shared meals:

  • increase fruit and vegetable intake among preschoolers
  • reduce tobacco and drug use among adolescents
  • in some studies increase emotional well being among parents themselves

This is all in addition to the well-documented reduction in unhealthy eating and obesity in children.

Today, I’ll discuss this in more detail. Eating with those with whom we live is a worthwhile and health-giving activity.

Shared meals increase fruit and vegetable intake among preschoolers.

Toddlers and preschoolers are finicky. One day, they’ll eat two peanut butter sandwiches and half of a head of cauliflower. The next day? Water, fresh air, and licking part of an apple slice will somehow sustain them. (Yes, this is inspired by true events).

The family meal isn’t going to change a toddler’s personality. It also won’t make them magically and consistently love all things healthy. But, research shows that young kids who have regular meals as a family do eat more fruits and vegetables compared to kids who do not have as many shared meals. 

One study showed a direct correlation. The more frequently meals were shared, the more fruits and veggies the kids ate overall. Starting the habit of more fruit and vegetables at a young age leads to many health benefits as they grow.

One theory is that toddlers seeing other family members consistently eat fruits and vegetables can impact the child’s perception. In my own life, my child will often choose to smell a vegetable from my plate, rather than eating an actual bite. Is a desensitization taking place? Maybe. I’ll let you know in a few years. 

Adolescents who have meals with their family are less likely to engage in some risky behaviors.

Several studies show that teenagers who have regular family meals are less likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. It also reduces rates of “disordered eating.” The details among the studies varied a bit. Gender affected results. One study showed that family meals were more effective for reducing these risks in females rather than males. A Brazilian study also included data about parents knowing where their teenage children spent free time. 

That being said, it all points to a general protective benefit of teens eating with their families. And, it makes sense. (Other research in other age groups supports this as well). It’s a time in the day when everyone gathers and physically sees each other.

It’s a pause, if even for a few moments, for each person to re-center in the presence of family. In many families, conversations take place that allow people to check in with each other. It’s a chance for stressors, anxieties, triumphs, and questions to all be addressed. The fact that it’s meal time perhaps makes it more likely to happen on a regular basis. 

Of course there are many variables in the risk for substance use among teens. Of course. However, it’s gratifying to know that simply eating with family members may have profound life-changing results. 

This may be a good time to mention that dinner is not the only option for shared dining. If evening schedules have everyone scattered, making family meals challenging, breakfast is an option too. 

Shared family meals also improve physical health.

The data is clear here. There is plenty of research telling us about specific measurable health benefits. The actual food chosen at family meals is healthier overall. Body Mass Indices (BMI, one measurement of obesity) are in healthier ranges for people who eat regular family meals. Kids who have shared meals are more likely to grow up having healthier BMIs.

Again, there are so many variables that I can’t say exactly why this is the case. But we do know that shared family meals are more likely to be homemade. And, kids may be involved in preparing the meal (and thus more likely to eat what is served). It’s also possible that kids are learning more healthy eating habits.

Parents benefit too.

Another study showed improved emotional well-being among parents. Less stress. Less signs of depression. There was also improved fruit and vegetable intake among parents. (I relate to this one as someone who definitely eats more veggies when being closely observed by a young person). This particular study, however, did not show a relationship between family meals and measurements of physical nutritional health in parents. 

Shared family meals are one step toward improving overall health.

We all know that health is complicated and there’s rarely one cause or solution to what ails us. But, it’s pretty amazing that the simple act of gathering to eat is so powerful. 

I often think of the Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She discusses examining and folding clothes carefully after each use. Among the tidying benefits, one can examine for small signs of wear. A loose thread or a small tear. If examined lovingly each day, small adjustments or repairs can be made before any further damage. Is the family meal another way of tending to each other, looking for any frays that need addressing? It seems to be so.

It helps keep a teen away from drugs, encourages a preschooler to eat more fruits and veggies, and helps kids grow up healthier overall. This is in addition to improving parents’ mental health. 

Shared dining can help even if food gets nudged away. Or if someone is feeling grumpy. Or if there’s a mess to clean up afterwards. There are still many health benefits to family meals. Simply being together with our families for a few moments, most days? It can propel our children into the world as healthier beings. 

Maya Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier. 

Disclaimer: This contains no medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

Post photo by Unsplash

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