Eating meals together just might be the ultimate parenting hack. What else can you do in an hour that will improve your kids' academic performance, increase their self-esteem, and reduce their risk of substance abuse, depression, teen pregnancy, and obesity?
Over the last two decades, study after study has shown that simply taking a few minutes each day to turn off screens and genuinely connect with each other over food can improve the physical and mental health of all family members involved.
Want proof? Here's some of the most recent research showing the benefits of eating together as a family.
1. It teaches your kids better eating habits.
A recent study in JAMA Network Open shows that eating meals with family members is associated with a better diet overall, especially among adolescents. Teens who ate with family were more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary beverages. These findings apply regardless of how functional or dysfunctional a family is, according to the study.
2. It can prevent serious psychosocial issues.
In other words, according to a 2015 review by a group of Canadian researchers, frequent family dinners can prevent issues with eating disorders, alcohol and substance use, violent behavior, depression, and suicidal thoughts in adolescents. Young female study participants were especially likely to reap the benefits of family meals.
3. It can curtail weight struggles in adulthood.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found a direct correlation between the frequency of shared family meals in adolescence and reduced odds of obesity or weight issues 10 years later, especially among black teens. The study concludes that families should attempt to gather for at least one or two meals each week to help protect their kids from weight struggles later in life.
4. It can improve children's self-esteem.
The security provided by regularly breaking bread as a family can help children feel more confident in themselves, according to experts at Stanford Children's Health, a pediatric health-care system affiliated with Stanford Medicine and Stanford University. By encouraging your children to talk about their day (and genuinely listening to their responses), you're communicating that you value and respect who they are. Children should be allowed to choose their own seats and encouraged to assist with chores associated with dinnertime, whether setting the table, serving the food, or cleaning up.
5. It improves communication skills.
A 2018 Canadian study that followed a group of children from infancy through childhood found that participants whose families had positive meal experiences at age 6 showed a range of positive benefits by age 10. Besides general health and fitness, the social interaction and discussions of current issues at the table can make kids better communicators, noted the study's supervisor, Université de Montréal pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, in a Science Daily interview.
6. It can help kids bounce back from cyberbullying.
Research published in JAMA Pediatrics, based on a survey of nearly 19,000 students, found clear associations between cyberbullying and anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. And with as many as one in five young people experiencing some form of cyberbullying, that's a major problem. However, teens who ate dinner with their families (ideally four or more times each week) reported fewer problems as a result of being bullied. The study authors note that the regular family contact facilitates more parental guidance and open communication between kids and their parents.
7. It can be used to supplement family therapy.
For families who are undergoing therapy together, their shared dinner habits can provide valuable insights on their dynamics to therapists, according to a 2016 study. In addition, families can be encouraged to take lessons learned during therapy to the dinner table, experimenting with new roles and communication patterns.