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Since the day my children were born, we have made it an important family practice to share meals together everyday.
When they were younger, and involved in sports and other activities, this often meant eating dinner at 4:30pm or even 8:00pm, but family dinnertime was non negotiable.
Now that my children are grown and living on their own, even when they visit and stay with us, we continue to insist on family mealtimes.
Why? There are so many reasons for this, which I’ll share in a moment, but mainly: connection. Eating dinner as a family allows us to stop and connect at least one time each day.
We’re busy with work, home and other obligations. The kids are busy with school, homework, activities, sports (or, if they are grown, like mine, work and social activities). Setting aside an hour each day to talk about their day and learn what is going on in their lives gives us the opportunity to stay connected.
When we look at important events in Bible history, many, in fact, include a meal. Family (or friends) eating together was central to the spiritual lives of believers throughout the Bible. Consider the table at Passover or Communion. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright expounded on this when he wrote, “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”
Dozens of studies have proven numerous benefits for a family eating together. Some apply for younger children only; some for all children, regardless of age. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Benefits From Eating Family Meals Together
1. Improved Mental Health
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that kids who regularly enjoyed family meals were much less likely to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety.
Enjoying a meal as a family, sharing about our days, hopes and dreams (as well as frustrations) can be a great stress-reliever for the whole family.
Another study, done with more than 26,000 Canadian teens (between the ages of 11-15), showed that the more frequent the family shares meals together, the better the emotional health of the child. Teens with frequent shared family dinners had fewer emotional and behavioral issues. They also were more trusting and had higher life satisfaction regardless of family economic or social status.
2. Greater Family Bonding
Several studies have also demonstrated that the more often a family shares mealtime, the stronger the bond the family has with each other.
As each person is busy with school, work, activities, ministry, social events and more, family dinners allow family members to reconnect.
One study, concluded that teenagers who eat dinner with their family regularly are more likely to say that they have good relationships with their mom, dad and sibling. However, teens who rarely eat dinner with their family are more like to say that they don’t have a good relationship with their parents and siblings.
Look at these statistics for teens who share regular mealtimes with their family. They are:
- One-and-a-half times more likely to have an excellent relationship with their mother.
- Twice as likely to have an excellent relationship with father.
- Twice as likely to have an excellent relationship with siblings.
More family discussions take place during mealtime than during any other activity, including playing with toys and reading books aloud. Simply put, when families spend time together and talk, they grow strong and healthy relationships.
3. Developmental Growth
Dinner with family encourages conversation on a wide range of topics. When this happens, learning is encouraged. Children who are part or or hear family conversation on a regular basis are shown to have a broader vocabulary than those who don’t. Language development is strengthened.
Children expand their vocabulary by hearing new words used in conversations.
4. Increased Physical Health
Families that eat together tend to make better food choices. Usually the food is cooked at home (not always, of course) but, when the family is tasked with providing the food, the food is generally more healthy and nutritious. When eating at home as a family, there are often more vegetables, fruits and dairy products and less sugar, soda and fried foods.
The study from Stanford University concluded that kids who eat family dinners are less likely to choose fried food and saturated fats and more likely to eat vegetables and fruit.
Another study, by the American Society For Nutrition, found that young children who shared meals with family had a lower body-mass index than kids who did not. They concluded that this is most likely due to the fact that home cooking tends to be healthier than restaurant meals or fast food, which have larger portion sizes and higher calorie and fat content.
Here are some statistics from the American College of Pediatrics:
Children ages nine to fourteen who have more regular dinners with their families have more healthful dietary patterns, including eating more fruits and vegetables, less saturated and trans fat, fewer fried foods and sodas, lower glycemic load, and more vitamins and other micro-nutrients.
Children are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating.
Children are 24% more likely to eat healthier foods.
Preschool-aged children exposed to the three household routines of regularly eating the evening meal as a family, obtaining adequate nighttime sleep, and having limited screen-viewing time had a 40% lower prevalence of obesity than those exposed to none of these routines.
Children are 12% less likely to become obese just by eating family meals.
Adolescents from homes where the family regularly eats meals together (more than five meals per week) have a much lower likelihood of disordered eating (weight control tactics: self-induced vomiting, laxative use, diet pills, fasting, eating very little food, using food substitutes, skipping meals, and smoking.)
Teens that eat with the family eat more vegetables, fruits, and dairy products.
5. Better Grades
A number of studies by The National Center On Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) have proven the importance of family meals. One of their studies revealed that children who eat with their family fewer than three times per week were more than twice as likely to receive Cs or worse on their report cards.
Kids who ate dinner with family five or more times per week fared much better and were more likely to receive mostly As and Bs.
6. Lower Instance of At-Risk Behaviors
Studies have shown that the decrease in the amount of dinners shared as a family has a direct increase to the likelihood that the child or teenager will engage in at-risk behaviors.
A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), as referenced above, has concluded that:
Teens who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to use alcohol.
Teens who have infrequent family dinners are four times more likely to use tobacco.
Teens who have infrequent family dinners are more likely to have access to prescription drugs in order to get high.
Teens who have infrequent family meals (fewer than two meals per week) are three times more likely to report that at least half of their friends use marijuana.
Teens who have infrequent family meals are twice as likely to know a friend who uses Ecstasy.
Teens who have infrequent family meals are 80% more likely to know a friend who abuses prescription drugs.
And a study by the American College of Pediatrics determined that teenagers who had more frequent family dinners were less likely to engage in sexual activity.
7. Enhanced Family Identity and Sense of Belonging
When families enjoy a meal together, their family identity is strengthened. Being a part of a routine and family practices provides a sense of security and stability that fosters a strong family connection. A survey of children and teens showed that kids who eat regularly with their family feel a stronger sense of family identity and belonging than those who didn’t.
8. Time for Problem Solving and Making Plans as a Family
So many discussions take place around the kitchen (or dining room table) including family conversations on dreams, plans and problems. Family mealtimes are the perfect time to make plans, compare and coordinate schedules and brainstorm for problem solving.
9. Better Manners
When you enjoy family mealtimes, you have the opportunity to demonstrate good manners, etiquette and social skills. As I’ve written about in Monkey See, Monkey Do, your children are more likely to model your behavior than your words.
Simply lead by example and gently correct. This is much easier to do when your children are at the table with you.
10. Improved Palette
While every family has their favorite meals, dinner time, at home, is a great opportunity to expand their paletters. Try cooking a meal from a different culture or cuisine.
If you have children reluctant to try new foods, pair a new food with one of their favorites. When my children were young, my rule was that they needed to try three bites of a new food. If they didn’t like it after three bites, fine, but, usually, they learned that they found a new food they enjoyed.
Trying a new food exposes your children to new things and increases their knowledge, and social skills.They also may start to look forward to trying new things.
11. Money Savings
An average restaurant bill for a family of four (in most areas of the US) is around $100. On the other hand, a home-cooked meal would cost significantly less, usually around $20 or less.
Additionally, cooking in batches or shopping for sales and with coupons, can drastically reduce that amount. Meal planning can help with this, as well.
By eating out less and eating as a family more, you can save more money to do the things you enjoy doing as a family, like save for a vacation or a special family activity.
12. Closer Walk with God
With busy lives, for many families, dinner is the only time they get to spend together. Use this opportunity to pray together and share your faith with your children.
Again, it comes down to modeling God-honoring behavior. The Bible is rich with verses highlighting the importance of sharing a meal with another. During your mealtime prayer, share a relevant Bible verse and discuss what the verse means. Talk about your walk with God, your faith and your ministry passions. Take advantage of this family time together to teach your children about God.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. – Acts 2:42
The importance of family mealtimes cannot be understated. The more you enjoy meals as a family, the greater the family bond and the healthier your family will be.
Family Mealtimes for Discussion and Bonding
By now you see, if you hadn’t already seen, the importance of eating together as a family. If you are currently eating together just once or twice a week, make it a priority to increase weekly family meals to three, four, five or even more times per week.
When everyone is at the table, use this opportunity to foster discussion and communication. Below is a downloadable, printable PDF with 75 conversation starters for family mealtimes. (It is SEVEN pages of great mealtime conversations!) Print it out and use it to encourage conversation with your family.
Simple Tips for Family Mealtimes
Each family has different expectations for what to expect at family dinners. In some families, communication might be the primary goal. In others, teaching good table manners may be at the top of the list.
Children need to learn a one thing at a time. Decide on your family expectations and start with one item at a time, perhaps having the child ask others how their day was. If they can’t sit still at the dinner table, focus on that first.
Whether communication is a family priority for you or not (and experts agree that it should be), dinnertime conversations are so of the most cherished time for a family to connect. After a busy day of school, work, activities, ministries, use this time to review your day and week and discuss plans, dreams or just your week ahead.
Teach by example
Family mealtime can be extended and a lesson taught, as well, when mom is not responsible for all of the prep, cooking, serving and clean up. Have the kids each take turns on helping mom or give each child a different task.
The dinner table is not the place to talk about things that would embarrass family members. Save those topics for private conversations and allow for compassion. Other than that, no topics should be off-limits.
Build your child’s self-esteem
Dinner is a perfect opportunity to build self-esteem in children. By listening to what children have to say, you are saying, “I value what you do; I respect who you are and what you’re doing; what you do is important to me.”
Mealtime can be looked at as an opportunity or as a chore. If it’s viewed as an opportunity, then all sorts of possibilities are created; if it’s viewed as a chore, then the possibilities don’t exist. And it doesn’t matter if the food is filet mignon, or pizza and salad.
Parents should let children choose their own seats. If they fight over a favorite seat, help settle the dispute peacefully.
As mentioned above, our family always ate together – whether that meant super early or super late. Eating together as a family on a regular basis solidifies the family dynamics and helps children to feel they are part of something larger.
Sample Prayer for Family Meals
Sadly, few families pray together, but gathering as a family for mealtime provides a wonderful opportunity to thank our Heavenly Father for all He has done for us, including providing the food we eat.
Take advantage of this time to pray as a family. Take turns (even the little ones can pray a simple prayer of blessing over the meal) and ask for praises and prayer requests.
Father, as we gather to share a meal together as family (and friends, if applicable), we thank you for joining us as a family. Thank you for the time we get to spend together eating and remembering you and your sacrifice for us. We are so grateful for the time we spend together.
Help us use this time to bond together and learn to love each other more.
Lord. We thank you for all of the gifts and blessings that you’ve bestowed us with. Help each of us to be thankful for your blessings and use our gifts to your glory.
Please guide our time together and draw us closer to you.
Thank you, Father God, for providing nourishment for us and for meeting our every need.
We pray that this food nourishes our body as your Word nourishes our soul.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
I realize that cooking on busy weeknights can be a challenge. I’ve put together my favorite sources for quick weeknight meal recipes. Hopefully, this will encourage you to cook more often at home and enjoy more time as a family.
Do you eat together, as a family, as often as you like? What changes can you make to enjoy more family meals together?
Which of the benefits above were you surprised to learn? Tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
For more information on Family dinners including ideas advice, consider checking out The Family Dinner Project from Massachusetts General Hospital.
Because He Lives,