Reviving the Family Meal: It's Good For Your Health

Making time for family meals brings long- and short-term benefits

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Today's families are pulled in a million different directions. Parents work long hours and kids' schedules are packed with school, sports and other extracurricular activities. Plus, we're expected to exercise almost every day, and on top of that put healthy meals on the table. It's making me tired just writing this! Often, sitting down at the dinner table for a family meal just doesn't make it to our list of the top priorities for the day. Rather, everyone retreats to their "screen" of choice—whether it's a computer, TV or tablet—for yet another solitary, distraction-filled meal.

Rebecca Scritchfield
Rebecca Scritchfield
As a parent, I feel it's my job to set an example and model healthy behaviors for my daughter in hopes that it will influence her own habits and relationship with food. It doesn't matter that I'm a nutrition expert and will be able to tell her what to eat. I have to show her. She will learn more from the structure around mealtimes than what I say to her about "nutrients." I'm not wasting time, either. Even though she's only 4-months-old, I make it a point to have my daughter at the table with me during our family mealtimes, so she can start to share the family meal experience. 

Despite the perpetual time crunch we all feel, I think there can be a resurgence of the family meal—it just takes a little planning, a little effort and a little family teamwork. We can break down those barriers to sitting down together, and we can get back to a place of enjoying each other's company, conversation and of course—let's not forget—delicious food. 

Can Family Meals Really Impact Kids? 

Just like with any business decision, there's a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be considered. It might be hard to see the short-term benefits of finding time to sit down and enjoy a meal together. Consider the value of conversation and "down time" as a chance to unwind, vent, bond, smile or even belly laugh. We need an outlet from our often turbulent days in order to feel emotionally balanced, happy and ready to do it again. Family meals may be that opportunity. 

Long-term benefits of family meals have been studied and reported in research literature. Recent research has shown that children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times per week are more likely to have healthier eating patterns than those who share fewer than three family meals. In addition, they're less likely to engage in disordered eating (such as skipping meals, compulsive overeating and restricting), and are more likely to perform better academically and have better relationships with their parents. 

New research from the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that the more frequent the family dinners, the higher the impact. With each additional dinner, researchers found "fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and higher life satisfaction." 

"Family" Is What You Make It 

You might not have a spouse, kids, siblings or parents who live nearby, but you still have family. Your "family" can be any group of people—a roommate, a more distant relative, a neighbor, a coworker or a teammate. 

5 Steps to Reviving Family Meals 

1. Talk to your "significant other." This means talking to whoever else shares in the decision-making and must agree that this is an important and necessary change. Decide together that you want to make family meals a priority.

2. Come up with a realistic plan. How often can you sit down together? And how can the family divide responsibility between planning, shopping, prep and clean up? This should not all fall on mom's to-do list. 

3. Make "the food" the easy part. There are plenty of ways to get quick, healthy meals on the table. Not everything has to be made from scratch, so don't feel like you need to chain yourself to your stove all day if you simply don't have that kind of time. Here a few fast meal tips and ideas that you can try: 

  • Keep your "tried and true" recipes on hand, along with the necessary ingredients. That way you've always got a reliable, easy recipe that you're confident about at your fingertips.
  • Boil some pasta and serve it with jarred marinara and a bagged salad. You can even add fresh or frozen veggies to your jarred sauce to jazz it up a little.
  • Heat frozen, pre-seasoned fish or frozen pre-cooked shrimp and serve with steamed frozen veggies.
  • Order your favorite take-out, but make it "half-plate healthy" by adding a bagged salad or veggies that are fresh, frozen or canned. 
  • 4. Eat, talk and enjoy. Include everyone in dinner conversation. You can talk about your day's highs and lows, tell a funny story or even talk about how the food is tasting. Let the conversation flow. 

    5. Take time to reflect. You made the effort and enjoyed dinner as a family. Now take a few minutes to reflect on the experience. What did you find personally beneficial? Do you feel any different? How did your family benefit? How can you make the experience better? What would you do differently next time?

    When I go through this with clients they will often describe feeling "lighter" not in weigh but in heart. They feel better after the meal than before. They feel more satisfied with their food, their family dynamic and their lives. Now that's powerful stuff. 

    I think it's a given that we can say "goodbye" to the June Cleaver days, but I disagree that we should abandon the family meal. It's an opportunity for valuable human connection and for food to mean more than calories and nutrients. 

    Have you made any changes to your family dynamic that you'd like to share? Leave a comment below and tell me what changes you've made to make your family more connected. 

    Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback. 

    Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, helps empower people to build healthy lifestyles. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Scritchfield is a Washington, D.C., based registered dietitian and fitness expert who encourages clients to find exercise that feels great, learn to manage stress, and establish lifelong eating skills that balance individual nutrition needs with hunger and pleasure. Visit her blog at: www.rebeccathinks.com.