5 Reasons to Make Family Mealtime a New Habit During Quarantine
A few months ago, evenings at your house may have looked something like this:
You’re late coming home from work. The kids are coming and going to a swim meet and soccer practice. You give teenager number one some cash to grab dinner on his way home. Teenager number two heats leftovers in the microwave. You collapse on the couch and kick off your shoes. At least the kids are fed—that’s one less thing to worry about.
For so many of us, family mealtime can seem an insurmountable obstacle.
From planning to grocery shopping to preparation, creating a meal for your family can be overwhelming and daunting—especially after a long day of work. Thanks to busy schedules and time constraints, research has shown a steady decline in the time people spend preparing and sharing meals.
But decades of research also shows that maintaining regular family mealtimes is well worth the hassle of clearing everyone’s schedules and making time to cook and eat together.
1. Children who take part in regular family meals are healthier.
It’s true! Children who dine regularly with their families are more likely to eat well-rounded, healthy diets with more fruits and vegetables. They are also more likely to be at a healthy body weight and less likely to suffer from pediatric obesity. For children and adolescents, the time spent having a meal also correlates to getting a healthy amount of sleep through the week.
2. Teenagers who participate in regular family meals are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Regular family meals could signify greater parental involvement, more frequent positive interactions among family members, or more opportunities to tackle tough conversations. Teenagers who eat with their families regularly have more touchpoints with the people in their primary support system. Research puts it this way: the practice of frequent family meals acts as a “protective function… against substance use.”
3. Frequent family meals are associated with higher academic achievement (particularly vocabulary development).
How much time do you spend talking with your children? How often is the TV turned off and distractions put away? It can be rare in our fast-paced, high-tech lives. Sitting at the dinner table together, free from distractions, is the perfect opportunity to have conversations. They don’t have to be “important” conversations where something significant is accomplished. Just talk. Kids who do this regularly have better vocabularies. Overall, they also do better in school.
4. Younger children who take part in regular family meals have less behavioral issues.
During family meals, young children learn societal norms and how they are expected to act. For example, whether we follow it or not, almost everyone knows not to put their elbows on the dinner table. When families make the effort to have important routines and rituals such as family dinner, there are inevitably rules to guide them. “No yelling at the dinner table.” “Clear your plate when you're finished.” Directly or indirectly, children pick up on these rules and are more likely to follow them in other social situations.
5. Family mealtime increases a child’s sense of family and cultural identity.
This is perhaps the most important reason research has uncovered. Family and cultural identity is essential for children; when they feel like they belong they feel more confident and more empowered. Sitting down together at a table can be a symbol of belonging to a group—the family. Children learn what it means to be a member of that group and their beliefs and behaviors around relationships begin to form.
If family meals have never been a part of your normal routine, it may be awkward or chaotic at first. But don’t worry. Just start.
With your schedules cleared and family members stuck at home spending time together, now is the perfect time to develop a new family meal-time habit. Whether immediately or over time, you and your children are sure to reap the benefits.
Osowski, Christine Persson, and Ylva Mattsson Sydner. “The Family Meal as an Ideal: Children’s Perceptions of Foodwork and Commensality in Everyday Life and Feasts.” International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2018, pp. 178–186., doi:10.1111/ijcs.12495.
Fiese, B., Foley, K., & Spagnola, M. (2006). Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child well-being and family identity. In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.),Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization (pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Fiese, B., & Schwartz, M. (2008). Reclaiming the family table: Mealtimes and child health and wellbeing. Social Policy Report: Giving Child and Youth Development Knowledge Away, 22(4), 1-19.