These days families are so busy that it’s easy to overlook one of the important events of the day—the family meal. Things get in the way, like job responsibilities, your kids’ involvement in extra-curricular activities, a blaring television or mobile phone text messages.
Family meal times should not simply be an event where food is prepared and consumed, but also a time for talk and interaction between family members. There’s a range of benefits for your family when this is practiced.
Childhood and teenage obesity is a growing problem, but a strategy as simple as structured family meals can help to combat this epidemic. A study by The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that kids who watch TV during meal time ate fewer vegetables, calcium-rich foods and grains, and they consumed more soft drinks than those who did not. The study concluded that the habit of having family meals during the early teenage years has a positive and lasting influence on dietary quality and meal patterns in young adulthood.
The research journal "Obesity," also reports that “the family meal setting has the potential to substantially impact the dietary intake of children and may provide an important avenue for obesity prevention. However, opportunities for families to have meals together have been negatively affected by changes in our society and . . . the frequency of family meals may be declining.”
One such change that’s negatively affected childhood obesity is the ready access to fast foods. Whoever is responsible for buying the groceries needs to avoid bringing home fast foods to be eaten during meal time. Fast foods tend to include more servings of chips and soft drinks, both of which are associated with obesity among young people.
The Journal of Adolescent Health also revealed that students who reported never eating family meals were more likely to be overweight, eat less fruits and fewer breakfasts and be more depressed.
This is clear evidence that structured family meals are important in helping to prevent obesity.
In America, a program called Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) explored the association between the frequency of family meals and the psycho-social wellbeing of younger teens. Results showed that the more often families had meals together, the better the academic performance of these young people.
Another study reported similar findings—teens who ate with their families were more likely to have higher grades in school and were more likely to go to university.
“A Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2000 high school students compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents,” says Barbara Mayfield of Purdue University.
Prevent risky behavior
Issues relating to risky behaviors like drinking, smoking and taking drugs, are a common concern of parents around the world. We all want our kids to develop free of the many risks facing them.
And here’s an unintended consequence of family meals together: A study by the Council of Economic Advisors in America showed that over half of teens who do not eat dinner with their parents become sexually active by the age of 15 or 16. This rate decreased to 32 percent when there were family meals in the home. Teens who have meals with their families are also less likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide and are less likely to ever be suspended from school.
Research has also demonstrated that family meals are associated with less substance use. The Journal of Adolescence reports that the frequency of family meals was associated with less substance use along with less theft and reduced interest in gang membership. And the Journal of Health Psychology reports that family meals were associated with a lower likelihood of tobacco and alcohol use.
According to a study by Columbia University, “The magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table but the conversations around it. Family dinners relate to family bonding, which relates to significantly higher rates of pro-social behavior and lower rates of all types of risky behavior.”
Building blocks for faith
Children begin to form their image of God at an early age from their experiences and relationships with their parents and other significant adults in their lives. They are affected by how these adults live out their relationship with God.
“The way we relate to each other is the most important spiritual discipline in the life of a family,” says Marjorie Thompson, author of Family The Forming Center.
Research by the Search Institute also confirms that the most significant religious influence on children that will extend to their adulthood is not what happens at church but what happens at home.
Eating together provides a time for bonding, great discussion and faith talk. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6) says that if we want to pass on faith then we will be more intentional and deliberate about creating rhythms in our homes and talking about our faith.
The act of sharing a meal at home is an important time for beliefs and values to be transmitted.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times, August 2011.