Science Tells Us: Family dinners are great for body, brain, and spirit

Black boy and girl eating dinner with their father.I think I might go out of business as a family therapist if families had regular dinners with each other. Almost 100 scientific studies, over the past 20 years, back up this speculation. Sitting down for a nightly meal turns out to be fantastic for the brain, the body, and the mental health of all family members. Don’t just take my word.

Here are some highlights of what science tells us about the many benefits of regular family dinners.

Brain Food

 Did you know that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than reading aloud to them at bedtime? Young kids learn almost ten times as many rare words at the dinner table as they do from listening to storybooks. And kids who have a large vocabulary have an early leg up on learning to read. Young kids can also get a boost to their math skills at dinner. A very recent study found that talking about math to preschoolers—“Eat half your broccoli, Mathilda”– can improve their math skills. For older kids, having regular family dinners is an even stronger predictor of high grades than doing homework, playing sports, or doing art.

Good for the Body

Home-cooked meals, as compared to restaurant or take-out foods, are lower in calories, fried foods, and soft drinks, and higher in fruits, vegetables, and nutrients. So it’s no surprise that kids who eat regular dinners are less likely to be obese. I was happy to learn that these benefits continue to pay dividends even after our kids leave home and take charge of their own meals. Kids who had regular family dinners grow up to be young adults who continue to eat more fruits and vegetables and have lower rates of obesity.

To reap any of these weight-related benefits, the TV should be off during dinner. In one study, American kindergartners who watched TV during dinner were more likely to be overweight by the time they were in 3rd grade. TV has a double whammy effect—the watching of food ads makes us eat more, and we’re more apt to eat mindlessly without paying attention to our own sense of fullness, if zoning out in a front of a screen.

Some studies have also found a connection between regular family dinners and the reduction of some medical symptoms, such as asthma. Researchers attribute this benefit to two aspects of family dinners: First, sharing a meal reduces everyone’s anxiety, which can have a positive impact on asthma symptoms. Second, dinnertime gives parents a chance to check in about a child’s symptoms and medication compliance and then make a course correction, if needed.

Good for the Spirit

 A pile of studies have found a strong connection between teens who have regular family dinners and a reduction of high-risk behaviors like smoking, binge-drinking, marijuana use, school problems, and precocious sexual activity. This connection is more important than church attendance or good grades in predicting lack of substance use and teenage pregnancy. In one large study of Minnesota teens, researchers reported that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as higher self-esteem.

It’s not just that mealtime prevents high-risk behaviors—it also promotes positive ones. In a New Zealand study, frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive mood in teens. Other researchers have found that teens who share regular meals with their parents have a more positive view of the future.

What’s so powerful about family dinners?

Simply put, it’s the most reliable time for families to connect and to check in with each other about the day’s activities. Earlier generations may have had other options—chatting with each other while pulling up potatoes in the fields, or stitching quilt squares side by side on the porch. But, today when teens are asked when they are most likely to talk to their parents, dinner is the most common response. When kids talk to their parents, and better still when they feel connected to them, they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Or if they start to, their parents may be able to intervene before these behaviors get going.

Dinner is a daily ritual that takes us away from the hubbub of everyday anxieties and can be a stress reliever for kids as well as parents. As Michelle Obama pointed out in a recent interview, “(Dinner) is a great opportunity for Barack to forget about the worries of the world he carries around, and we can just be a family.” Now, I don’t expect the President to be grocery-shopping or washing dishes, but I do believe that the benefits to adults may be increased if the workload for making family dinners happen – the planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up –doesn’t fall on only one person.

Of course, there is nothing inherently magical about dinner. The real power lies in the quality of the relationships around the table. The most important ingredient for a great family dinner is a warm atmosphere where everyone is invited to talk and to listen. If family members sit in stony silence or berate one another, family dinner won’t confer positive benefits. Merely sharing a lasagna isn’t going to transform a tense or hostile parent-child relationship. But, we all have to eat. So dinner keeps popping up night after night, offering an opportunity for families to share a story, a joke, a challenge from the day—dinner offers a daily possibility to build a sense of connection that can extend beyond the dinner table.

Dr. Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of Family and Couples Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. She is the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids and the co-founder of The Family Dinner Project.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Joann Woolley

    This is such a great article. Family dinners have always been important in our house and will continue to be. I would have never guessed that it played a role in good grades though!

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