By now, most people have heard that there are lots of benefits associated with having family dinner together on a regular basis. In this post, we take a closer look at what exactly those can be. And, with a particular focus on the emotional benefits of eating family dinner together.
But, we’re also going to take a look at the fantasy of family dinner vs the reality. What common obstacles exist to having family dinner together on a regular basis? And, how guilty (or not) should you really feel if you’re not able to pull it off.
This post sets out what research shows about eating family dinner together. It’s also important to know that these benefits can accrue even if you’re not having family meals together every night. And we’ll also talk about the common obstacles to eating family dinner together and how to overcome them.
The Reality of Eating Family Dinner Together
On television and movies, you often see rosy images of the reasonably well-adjusted family sitting down together for family dinner. The screen is filled with a scene of love, laughter, and togetherness. And, inevitably, it can create small (or large) pangs of guilt in those parents who don’t make that happen regularly or perhaps at all.
But, what’s often missing from that rosy picture presented on screen is the reality of what it takes to pull that off. There’s a lot of real work involved. You can’t make that happen with a snap of the fingers. Someone has to plan the meal, figure out what’s going to be cooked while taking into account any picky eaters, allergies, or other dietary restrictions. Someone has to buy the groceries, cook the food, get the table ready, serve the food, monitor behavior, and/or moderate conversation.
And then, after dinner is done, someone has to clean it all up.
Many hours of planning and prep time over the course of a week or more can go into pulling off one hour of family dinner. And very few people have a staff of servants standing ready to help pull that off.
So, this is not intended to be a guilt fest. We get it. There is a huge gap, for many people, between the stylized vision you see of the family dinner on TV or in movies, and the reality of what is actually possible in your own home.
But, putting aside for the moment the work required to make family dinner happen, when it does happen there are important, concrete emotional benefits that come from eating family dinner together. So let’s take a look at those.
Emotional Benefits of Eating Family Dinner Together
In recent years, research has shown that there are emotional benefits of eating family dinner together. A wealth of research shows an association between frequent family dinners and emotional well-being.
Studies have found positive associations between the frequency of family meals and self-esteem, children’s positive perceptions of available support and boundaries, and overall psychological well-being.
In contrast, studies have also shown that the absence of family dinners creates a negative association with substance use (alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), depression, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, unhealthy and extreme weight-loss practices, and violent or delinquent behavior.
Some experts believe that sharing meals together as a family promotes bonding and relational closeness. And, when eating family dinner together is part of an established family routine, this may promote overall health and well-being. It’s generally a safe place where emotions are well regulated and there’s minimal open conflict.
Emotional Benefits: Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
Why do kids who eat with their families have better emotional health, self-esteem, and self-confidence?
There are several proposed explanations for this.
One explanation is that when families eat dinner together, they’re spending time together and communicating. This can create a sense of family unity and connectedness, which can boost self-esteem. This stronger bond can make kids feel more supported and loved, which in turn boosts their self-esteem.
Also, regular family dinners are often associated with positive parenting practices. So, kids who eat dinner with their families are more likely to receive positive reinforcement from their parents about their accomplishments and good behaviors. This type of positive reinforcement can also lead to higher self-esteem.
Another explanation is that having regular family dinners sends a clear message to kids that they are important and valued members of the family. This sense of importance can give kids a feeling of self-worth and confidence, which again contributes to higher self-esteem.
Another related possibility is that kids who eat dinner together with their families feel loved and supported, and this provides them with a sense of self-worth. When kids feel loved and supported by their families, they’re more likely to feel good about themselves and have high self-esteem.
Family Dinners Reduce High-Risk Behaviors In Children.
It’s not entirely clear why, but several studies have shown that kids who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to engage in risky behavior.
One comprehensive review of research studies examined the association between family meals and several categories of teen risks. These included:
- alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs
- aggressive and/or violent behaviors
- poor school performance
- sexual behavior
- mental health problems
- disordered eating patterns.
The majority of the studies reviewed documented associations between regular family meals and teenage risk profiles. More specifically, the research showed that adolescents who frequently ate meals with their families were less likely to engage in risk behaviors when compared to peers who never or rarely ate meals with their families.
So, what accounts for this?
One theory is that kids who eat family dinner together are more likely to have open communication with their parents. Some recent research suggests that eating family dinners together promotes better communication specifically in teens and specifically between teens and their parents.
This means they’re more likely to feel comfortable talking to their parents about things like risky behavior, drugs, and alcohol. Kids who don’t eat family dinner together might be less likely to talk openly with their parents about these types of things, which could lead them to engage in more risky behavior.
Another possibility is that family dinners give kids the opportunity to talk about their day with their parents and get guidance and feedback from them. This type of communication can be really important in helping kids make good decisions and avoid sticky problems.
Family Meals Lead To Healthy Eating Habits Being Developed.
Generally speaking, eating more home-cooked meals leads to better health and nutrition.
Eating home-cooked meals is often associated with consuming more fruits and vegetables and other foods rich in vitamins and essential nutrients.
Also, eating family meals at home more often reduces opportunities to eat outside of the home. Food eaten at home is often healthier than food eaten outside of the home.
Families who eat more regular family dinners together have overall healthier diets. Meals typically include more protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber when they are prepared at home. The meals also usually have less sugar, salt, and saturated fats than when you buy food at take-out places or restaurants.
In addition to providing healthier meals, regular family dinners model healthy eating behaviors for kids. This helps them make their own better choices as they grow older. (Of course, this is premised on the idea that meals being served at home follow basic family nutrition practices.)
Studies show that when a family sits together for a meal, the chances of all family members becoming overweight or obese are decreased. By sharing 3 or more meals a week with your family, the risk of being obese is reduced by 12%, and eating disorders are less likely to occur.
Young adults who had regular family meals as teenagers continue to eat more vegetables, more fiber, and more vitamins and minerals. They are also 20% less likely to regularly eat fast food.
Common Obstacles to Eating Family Dinner Together
Many families have a difficult time trying to eat family dinners together on a regular basis. There are many common obstacles to having family dinner together every night. These problems can include things like work schedules, sports, music lessons, and other activities that pull family members in different directions.
The most common ones are:
- Problems with scheduling
- Difficulty getting everyone to agree on what to eat
- Dealing with picky eaters
- Disagreement about who should do the cooking or cleaning
- Feeling too tired after work to cook or eat a meal
- Children being too busy with schoolwork or extracurricular activities
Also, meal preparation itself can create stress. Meal preparation problems can include not knowing how to cook or not having enough time to cook.
Tips For Planning Family Dinners.
So, what are some strategies for overcoming obstacles and having more family dinners together?
Have a Firm Dinner Schedule
One way to overcome these obstacles is to make a plan and put it into action. Decide what nights everyone will have off from work or school, and then schedule those nights as family dinners.
Schedule a regular time for dinner and make it a priority. Stick to it as much as possible. This will help everyone in the family prepare and plan for dinner, and minimize last-minute chaos. Decide what time everyone will eat dinner and make sure everyone is home by then.
Upgrade Your Meal Planning Skills
Research studies have shown that meal planning skills have been significantly associated with odds of preparing more than 50% of evening meals at home.
Meal planning and having confidence in one’s meal planning skills can substantially increase the likelihood of eating family dinners together. The goal is to decrease the mental stress and energy associated with figuring out “what’s for dinner?”
Buying ingredients in bulk, batch cooking, and freezing food are popular strategies for making sure you have the building blocks readily available for creating low-stress healthy meals.
Meal planning skills and implementing some basic meal prep strategies (like developing a relationship with your family freezer) can help avoid the phenomenon of not having anything planned or ready for dinner and being too tired to pull something together.
Involve Kids in Meal Preparation
Involving your kids in meal preparation can also make having family dinners together much easier. Getting the kids involved not only lessens the burden of time but also strengthens the benefits that shared meals have on diet.
Children enjoy assisting in the kitchen. Allowing them to assist in preparing food and setting the table will make them feel more empowered, valued, and part of the family.
There are a number of benefits to involving kids in preparing family dinners. First, it teaches them life skills that will be useful for them later on in life. Cooking is a valuable skill that can help them save money and eat healthier.
Second, kids who participate in preparing meals with their parents are more likely to have stronger relationships with them. Kids feel connected to their families when they participate in family dinners. It helps create strong relationships and gives kids a sense of belonging. Kids feel responsible for their families when they contribute to meal preparations. And, as noted above, this can help boost their self-esteem.
Third, it teaches them about nutrition and allows them to try new foods. They’ll also learn about the importance of balanced diets and healthy foods. When kids help prepare meals, they are more likely to be willing to try the food and may even end up liking it.
Finally, it’s a fun activity that the whole family can do together. Cooking together is a great way to spend time.
Spread the Preparation Burdens Around
This is closely related to the tip above.
Get everyone involved in preparing dinner. This can help make things run more smoothly and give everyone a sense of ownership over the meal. Assign a role to every family member – tasks such as chopping vegetables, setting the table, or serving drinks.
Also, come up with a rotating schedule for who cooks dinner each night. This way, nobody gets stuck in the kitchen every night.
Focus on Simple Meals
Commit to making meals that are simple and easy to prepare. Don’t try to cook elaborate meals. There’s no need to slave over a hot stove every night (or really any night!) Simple recipes that can be made in under 30 minutes are perfect for busy families. Take a look at these examples:
- 30-Minute Meals Your Family Will Love
- 40+ Meals Made in 30 Min or Less!
- 50 Inspiring 30-Minute Dinner Recipes
- Easy Family Dinners That Only Take 30 Minutes
Establish Some Simple Routines
Developing routines around meal planning, shopping strategies, and cooking skills can reduce barriers to meal preparation.
So, for example, establish some simple routines around grocery shopping. Post a list on the fridge or some other easily accessible place. Whenever someone uses the last of some item from the pantry, cupboards or fridge, they should write it on the list. This cuts down on wandering around your house (or worse in the store) trying to figure out what you might need.
For instance, another routine could be designating one day a month for batch cooking a certain type of meat that’s common to several favorite (or at least tolerated) meals and then freezing it. So, if your family has several meals that involve chicken, you could batch cook 3 pounds of grilled chicken, separate it into quantities used for an individual meal and toss it in the freezer. Then, when you’re ready to make that meal, a significant part of the cooking is already done.
Likewise, if you use a lot of ground beef or turkey, you can brown up a bunch of it in advance so that it’s ready for tacos, chili, enchiladas, casseroles, whatever.
Focus On The Moment
Make dinnertime a special occasion. Avoid distractions. Turn off the TV, put away your phones, and enjoy being together. Make sure everyone is clear about what the expectations are for dinner (e.g. is it a time to catch up on the day’s events, or talk about school/work projects, or just eat together?).
Eating together as a family is more than possible. You can set a goal of having family dinners a few times a week. Start with doing one more per week than you’re doing now.
The more you eat as a family, the greater these benefits become. Use family dinners to foster an environment where kids feel like they can share their thoughts and feelings with you. Family dinners, like everything, take practice. With time and practice, family meals will become a frequent occurrence.
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