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Publication #FCS8871

Family Nutrition: The Truth about Family Meals1

Larry Forthun2

Introduction

In a recent book entitled The Surprising Power of Family Meals, author Miriam Weinstein asks this question:

What if I told you that there was a magic bullet—something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children's chances of success in the world, [and] your family's health. . .? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce, and within the reach of pretty much everyone? (Weinstein, 2005, p. 1)

You guessed it, that magic bullet is the family meal. According to research, eating together as a family on a regular basis has some surprising effects. When sharing a meal together family bonds become stronger, children are better adjusted, family members eat more nutritional meals, they are less likely to be overweight, and they are less likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs. Given the positive benefits of eating together, why are more families not doing it?

Trends

Although there has been a growing concern that families are no longer eating together, research over the last decade suggests that this is not the case. In a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, over the last 10 years approximately 58% to 61% of teenagers consistently report having frequent family dinners (five or more times per week) (CASA, 2011). The results of the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health are similar. Approximately 77% of children and youth reported that they eat meals with their families four or more times per week.

These numbers seem to suggest that most children and youth in the U.S. are eating meals with their families more days than not on a weekly basis. What about the children and youth in the state of Florida? Do they follow the national trend? According to the most recent data collected in 2007 through the National Survey of Children’s Health, 48% of youth age 0-17 ate a meal together with their families every day during the previous week. This compared to 45.8% nationally. Approximately 80% of Florida children and youth reported eating family meals at least 4 days per week. As shown in Table 1, the percentages differ based on the age of the child, with younger children eating family meals more frequently.

The trends are hopeful, but there are still a large number of children and youth who do not share meals with their families. Although trying to get the family together for a family meal is very challenging, the benefits appear to outweigh the costs.

Family Togetherness

One benefit of eating meals together is the effect on strengthening family bonds. Family meals provide a daily time for the whole family to be together. For younger children, having routine family meals can provide a sense of security and a feeling of belonging in the family (Satter, 1987). Older children and teenagers, too, prefer eating together as a family. In a recent Columbia University study, 71% of teenagers said they consider talking/catching-up, and spending time with family members as the best part of family dinners (CASA, 2011).

Family meals are also a representation of the ethnic, cultural, or religious heritage of the family (Weinstein, 2005). What the family eats, how they eat, and when they eat reflects this cultural identity. As children participate in these cultural traditions, they begin to learn more about their heritage and their family’s history. A study from Emory University found that children who knew a lot about their family history, through family meals and other interactions, had a closer relationship to family members, higher self esteem, and a greater sense of control over their own lives (Duke, Fivush, Lazarus, & Bohanek, 2003).

Communication

Regular family meals provide opportunities for the family to develop better communication (Lyttle & Baugh, 2008; FY1054). At family meals, parents and children have time to catch up with each other and learn about the events that happened that day (Leon & Spengler, 2007). It also provides parents a learning opportunity where they can teach social skills, table manners, and basic cooking skills. Parents should model good communication skills, like the RECIPE for good communication (Forthun & Kaplan, 2008b; FY1060), and encourage all family members to be involved.

Well-Being

Regular family meals are related to better adjustment in children and youth (Eisenberg et al., 2004). Research shows that youth who have regular family meals report earning better grades in school, are more motivated at school, and get along better with others. On the other hand, those who do not eat regular family meals together are more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or use other drugs (CASA, 2011). Children and youth who do not eat family meals together are also more likely to report feeling depressed or having trouble at school.

Even among older teenagers, who often have conflicting schedules and do not eat regularly with their family, the risk is higher when they do not regularly participate in family meals (CASA, 2011). A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that even if the family members are not very close to each other, having a meal together as a family reduces the risk for many of these troubling behaviors among youth (Eisenberg et al., 2004).

Nutrition

Eating meals together as a family also means that family members are more likely to eat healthy foods (Lyttle & Baugh, 2008; FY1054). Families that eat together are less likely to dine out (fried food and soda) and are more likely to serve fruits or vegetables and other healthy foods during dinnertime (Marino & Butkus, n.d.). Some researchers found that eating meals together reduces the risk for being overweight, especially in families with an authoritative parenting style (Forthun, 2008a; FY1059).

Things to Consider

There are two caveats to the benefits of family dinners on the health and well-being of family members. The first is eating in front of the television. Although a recent study found that families who eat in front of the TV are still more likely to eat healthy foods than those who do not eat together, they are less likely to eat healthy meals than those who eat together at the dinner table (Feldman, et al., 2007). The second caveat is for families who eat together at the dinner table but who frequently purchase prepared foods (e.g., take-out). Although the family may receive the benefits of increased family togetherness and well-being, they may not receive the nutritional benefits of a home-cooked meal.

Conclusion

Eating together as a family is more than just a meal, it is an opportunity for families to come together regularly in support of family unity. Most research suggests that both parents and children value sharing a meal together and find the experience rewarding. Although there is no guarantee that eating together as a family will resolve all family problems, it may provide the opportunity to make a fresh start.

How to Get the Whole Family to the Dinner Table

  • Make shared family meals a priority. Emphasize the importance of being together, not creating an elaborate meal that everyone will enjoy. Set regular meal times by writing them on the calendar. Let everyone know when dinner is served and when they must be home.

  • If the family is not used to eating together regularly, start small. At first, get used to eating together by scheduling family meals two or three days per week. Then, as the weeks progress, begin to have more and more regular meals.

  • Make family meals fun. Include children in the preparation of the meal and in the decision about what foods will be offered during the meal. Of course, parents have final say about what foods are prepared, but allowing the children to participate can create a fun environment.

  • Keep a sense of humor while at the dinner table.

  • Eliminate distractions, like TV, telephone, and cell phones.

  • Try to limit the conversations to positive or neutral topics. Do not let the conversation get out of hand and allow family members to criticize one another. Keep it light and fun. Create an environment that leads to healthy communication.

  • Be a good role model. Show children good etiquette and table manners.

  • Eat slowly. Remember, this is an opportunity for the family to spend time together. Do not make it about the food; make it about the family.

References

Duke, M.P., Fivush, R., Lazarus, A., & Bohanek, J. (2003). Of ketchup and kin: Dinntertime conversations as a major source of family knowledge, family adjustment, and family resilience (Working Paper #26). Retrieved July 25, 2008, from http://www.marial.emory.edu/research/

Eisenberg, M.E., Olson, R.E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Bearinger, L.H. (2004). Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158, 792-796.

Feldman, S., Eisenberg, M.E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Story, M. (2007). Associations between watching TV during famly meals and dietary intake among adolescents. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39, 257-263.

Forthun, L.F. (2008a). Family nutrition: Parenting and family life. Gainesville, FL: Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Publication number: FCS8869. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY1059 .

Forthun, L.F. (2008b). Family nutrition: RECIPE for good communication. Gainesville, FL: Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Publication number: FCS8670. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY1060.

Lyttle, J., & Baugh, E. (2008). The importance of family dinners. Gainesville, FL: Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. FY 1054, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1054.

Marino, M., & Butkus, Sue (n.d.). Background: Research on family meals. http://nutrition.wsu.edu/ebet/background.html [22 March 2013].

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) (2011, Sept.). The importance of family dinners VII. Retrieved December 22, 2011 from http://www.casacolumbia.org/

National Survey of Children’s Health (2007). Available at:http://childhealthdata.org/learn/NSCH

Satter, E. (1987). How to get your kid to eat…but not too much. Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Co.

Weinstein, M. (2005) The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.

Extension Resources

Promoting Family Meals

Purdue University, Center for Families

http://www.cfs.purdue.edu/CFF/promotingfamilymeals/index.html

Tables

Table 1. 

Frequency of Family Meals by Children Aged 0–17 in the State of Florida

 

0-5

Years Old

6-11 Years Old

12-17 Years Old

0 Days Per Week

3.0%

3.7%

5.7%

1-3 Days Per Week

13.9%

12.5%

21.7%

4-6 Days Per Week

24.7%

33.9%

36.4%

Everyday

58.4%

49.8%

36.2%

National Survey of Children's Health, http://childhealthdata.org/

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS8871, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date September 2008. Revised January 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Larry Forthun, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.