Family Meals: Why They’re So Important

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

To many busy families, regularly eating together as a family rarely happens. Busy work and school schedules pull family members in opposite directions often at mealtimes. 

Frequently eating apart as a family is not good, according to several experts.

“Family meals provide a time to connect,” said Kenneth Shamlian, clinical psychologist at University of Rochester Medical Center in the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics. “It’s a routine where adults model relating to one another and set up boundaries where people sit together and act together as a family. It’s about structure.”

Grabbing bags of fast food while driving one child to soccer, another to piano and another to a playdate relates a far different dynamic. That experience is rushed, chaotic and less of a shared experience than eating the same food at the same table at a pace that ensures meaningful conversation.

At a family meal, “the family can discuss what’s happened during the day, and what is happening that week,” Shamlian said.

This becomes especially important as children become teens and conversing with parents is often more challenging. Shamlian believes that talking during a meal may be one of the few times teens regularly speak with their parents.

“There may not be much that brings everyone together at that age, but food and traditions can,” Shamlian said. “We have quite a few points of research that correlates sharing meals with benefits for kids, like less stress, less obesity, better academic performance, better parent/child relationships and decreased chances of risky behavior, eating disorders, and less anxiety.”

For some families, mealtimes can be stressful, such as children who have dietary restrictions, inability to take nutrition orally or those on the autism spectrum with rigid food preferences. That does not mean that the family cannot connect. Shamlian encourages taking time with children engaging in a meaningful activity like completing a puzzle, playing a board game or reading a storybook.

Sharing family meals can also affect children’s physical health.

“Supporting healthful eating patterns at family meals may improve the likelihood that adolescents will choose nutritious foods in adulthood and may offer protection from becoming overweight, dieting behavior, disordered eating, drug and alcohol abuse, and early sexual behavior,” said Melissa Goddeau, registered dietitian nutritionist with Nutrition Care of Rochester, PLLC in Pittsford. “Research has shown that teens who eat more frequently at home consume fewer soft drinks and more calcium-rich foods, fruit, and vegetables.”

Ideally, parents model healthful eating at home for most meals. Goddeau added that involving children in meal planning and preparation at age-appropriate ability can help ensure they will want to eat a meal and instill better eating habits.

She recommended simple tasks like rinsing berries and tearing lettuce for younger children. Eventually, they may slice fruits and vegetables, measure ingredients, try recipes, and help with the planning and shopping.

“Preparing meals and eating together supports the goal of developing positive eating habits,” Goddeau said.

While healthful, balanced meals with minimal processed foods and plenty of produce is ideal, Amy L. Stacy, registered dietitian with Rochester Regional Health Diabetes and Endocrinology, said that “life can get in the way. Sometimes, it’s just not possible to have family meal together, but even if you can plan a few days of the week that the family shares a dinnertime, that’s beneficial, too.”

But to share more of those family meals, cooking on the weekend entire meals or time-consuming elements like meat or rice can hasten meal preparation during the week.

“I know someone who makes a whole bunch of stuffed ravioli, freezes them individually, and puts them in a Ziploc bag to reheat in hot water,” Stacy offered as an example.

Washing and cutting up produce in the morning can make dinner faster to fix. Stocking up on items like instant brown rice, steam-in-bag vegetables, ready-to-eat salad, and frozen, non-breaded chicken breast tenders can make meal prep faster since all of these can contribute to a healthful meal in minutes and are less expensive than many convenience foods or fast food.

How food is prepared can also increase the chances of eating together at home —and not from a drive through bag. Stacy is a big fan of roasting vegetables to reheat later; cooking lean hamburger to add to recipes and keeping on hand canned kidney beans to make soup.

When you do have the time, April Ho, registered dietitian with URMC, encourages making meal preparation and consumption an activity, such as family pizza or pasta making.

“Making meals and eating together should be a memorable, joyful experience,” Ho said. “If people feel that way about eating, they’ll want to do that more and place higher value on it.”