When I was a child and my family was gathered together for a meal, my father would sometimes look each of us in the eye and say, “All for one, and one for all.” We eagerly repeated this to each other, enjoying the sense of belonging, service, and support. Even when those words weren’t there, the meal together was a tangible expression of our connection. My childhood is now long gone. Life has been full of ups and downs, and it seems ever more complicated and busy. But the simple tradition of family meals has had a long impact. These days, when my family sits down to dinner, my wife and four children around the table, we like to clink our glasses together and declare, “All for one, and one for all!”
It’s hard to overestimate the enormous potential of families sharing meals together. Prepare to be inspired! Even without giving extra effort or conscious thought, family meals are associated with better nutrition, better health, better behavior, and happier children, parents (and grandparents). Experts today are wringing their hands about the obesity epidemic in children and depression in teens; citizens are concerned about violence; educators are distressed by falling school performance. I wish I could write a simple prescription for all families: find a way to enjoy as many meals together, especially at home together, as you can.
Dozens of scientific studies have demonstrated an impressive list of benefits associated with eating together as a family. But some people have correctly pointed out that in the earlier studies it wasn’t clear which was causing which. It made sense to suspect that eating together promoted the benefits, but it was also possible that the association found in the studies was because happier, healthier families were just more likely to eat together. The more recent studies have taken into account other measures of family connectedness and concluded that the benefits we will explore do indeed arise at the table together.
The nutritional benefits alone are dramatic. Getting kids to eat vegetables can be frustrating for many parents. As kids eat more meals at home with their parents, they naturally begin to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy dairy products than their peers do. They are significantly more likely to achieve their nutritional needs. And they eat less in the way of deep-fried foods and drink fewer sugared and carbonated beverages. Increasing the frequency of family dinners is associated with substantially higher intake of several specific nutrients, including fiber, calcium, folate, iron, vitamins B6, B12, C, and E; and with lower average glycemic index; and with lower intake of saturated and trans fats. The benefits are even greater if kids are involved in mealtime preparation and cleaning.
Contrast a family-around-the-table meal at home to a meal at home with the television. The more often that children eat in front of the television, the more likely they are to get more of their calories from fatty meats, pizza, salty snacks, and soda; and the less likely they are to get them from fruits and vegetables. Children in high television-meal families also average twice as much caffeine consumption as do their peers. And meals out are even worse! The typical kids’ meal in many restaurants is a nutritional wasteland. Fast food meals more than twice a week are associated with increased obesity and type 2 diabetes. Simple family meals are an important strategy to improve nutrition, prevent obesity, and improve health. But they do so much more!
Youth who eat more family meals perform better in school. They spend more time on homework, get better grades, and spend more of their free time reading for pleasure. And they are happier. They are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. They are less likely to engage in early sexual activity or to have eating disorders. Their self-esteems are higher, on average, and they are less likely to become depressed. Teens who eat many meals with their families are half as likely to think about suicide.
Even though this article focuses on parents and children, meals with grandparents are also very valuable for all concerned. The elderly, even senior citizens with dementia, enjoy many similar benefits, the more often they eat with their families or have family-style meals.
Each family meal can be a place of calm in the sea of busyness that roils around us. It can be an oasis of connectedness and simple joy. Family meals offer routine and consistency in the midst of change. They are opportunities to learn together about communication skills, manners, nutrition, and good eating habits. They build family identity and unconscious memories to last a lifetime. Family meals may also provide an important time to “check-in”, during which parents can tune in to the emotional well-being of their children and each other.
Clearly, for most families where someone works or attends school away from home, many, many meals will be apart. But even enjoying 1/3 of your meals together represents enormous, gentle, lasting, quiet power. It’s not clear which meals together – breakfasts, lunches, or dinners – are most valuable. I suspect it would be different for different families.
An August 2004 study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine followed thousands of youth. About ¼ of them reported having family meals 7 or more times a week. About ¼ reported having family meals 2 times or less a week. Those who enjoyed 7 family meals a week demonstrated significant, measurable benefits such as those we have been discussing, including better grades, less depression, less suicide risk, and less substance abuse – even in families that were otherwise similar. Imagine how powerful it could be for our families to gather together around the table more often. And imagine how powerful it could be for our nation and for our world if we could double the number of families that get 7 meals together each week, and cut the number who get only 2 family meals in half. A quiet, tableside revolution!
When I pick my daughter up from middle school, usually the first question out of her mouth is, “What’s for din-ner?” Her refrain is so oft repeated that the boys often chime in or anticipate her question by a beat. Yes, she’s curious about the food choices, but her deeper questions are about our family evening. Who’s got what practice, rehearsal, game, or show? What are our evening plans? How and where will be together?
Tonight, as it happens, we’ll be driving to have dinner with my parents to celebrate my mom’s, twin sisters’, and nephew’s birthdays this week. All for one and one for all!
Coon K, Goldberg J, Rogers B, Tucker K. Relationships Between Use of Television During Meals and Children’s Food Consumption Patterns. Pediatrics, January 2001.
Pereira M, Kartashov AI, Ebbeling CB, Van Horn L, Slattery ML et al. Fast-food Habits, Weight Gain, and Insulin Resistance (The CARDIA Study): 15-Year Prospective Analysis. The Lancet, January 2005.
Nijs K, de Graaf C, Kok F, van Staveren W. Effect of family style mealtimes on quality of life, physical performance, and body weight of nursing home residents: cluster randomised controlled trial.” BMJ, May 2006.
Altus DE, Engelman KK, Mathews RM. Using family-style meals to increase participation and communication in persons with dementia. J Gerontol Nurs, September 2002.
Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, August 2004.