7 Science-Based Benefits of Eating Together as a Family

Sitting down for a family meal (and no, it doesn't necessarily have to be dinner) has resounding benefits for both kids and their parents.

family dinner with friends
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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, improve cardiovascular health, and reduce their risk of substance misuse, depression, teen pregnancy, and obesity?

Thanks to two decades worth of research, Harvard Graduate School explains 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. Eating Together Encourages Healthier Eating Habits

A 2018 study in JAMA Network Open found 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. Additionally, you don't need to be the perfect happy family for these benefits to apply: The study found that the kids were able to build healthier habits regardless of how functional the family was.

2. Eating Together Can Help Prevent Mental Health Disorders

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 protective mental health benefits of family meals.

And a 2022 survey by the American Health Association found that 91% of parents reported that their families were significantly less stressed when their families eat meals together regularly. (And again, that meal does not have to be dinner!)

3. Eating Together May Prevent Adulthood Weight Struggles

A 2015 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 concluded 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.

Similar findings were also confirmed in a 2017 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, although that study found that there was a lower rate of adulthood obesity specifically only if the family meals eaten together were home-cooked.

4. Eating Together 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 Medicine 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.

Healthy food, happy kid
Courtesy of Gail Cornwall

5. Eating Together Can Improve Communication Skills

A 2017 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 psychoeducation professor Linda Pagani in a Science Daily interview.

6. Eating Together May Help Kids With Bullying

Research published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014 based on a survey of nearly 19,000 students found clear associations between cyberbullying and anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. And with as many as 1 in 5 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. Eating Together Can Supplement Family Therapy

For families who are undergoing therapy together, their shared dinner habits can provide valuable insights into their dynamics to therapists, according to a 2016 case study. In addition, families can be encouraged to take lessons learned during therapy to the dinner table, experimenting with new roles and communication patterns.

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