Family meal times improve behavior in children and youth

Experts agree that eating together at a family table can affect the general health, behavior, relationships, and communication of family members. Research shows that children who eat family meals are less likely to participate in high risk behaviors.

Sharing meals at the family table has many benefits for children. Photo credit: Hylinski.

Sharing meals at the family table has many benefits for children. Photo credit: Hylinski.

Coming together to eat at the family table is an ordinary everyday ritual that is losing favor with families today. Overworked parents, over-scheduled children and technology have all pushed their way into family life and created a smaller space for the family table. Eating together gives families an opportunity to come together in a ritual where “meaning” and “habit” meet.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) conducts a survey each year that focuses on aspects of teenage behavior. According to the survey, eating meals together on a regular basis is at the top of the list of variables that are within our control. Children who eat regular family meals are more likely to perform better in school than their classmates who rarely eat together as a family. These same kids report that they are less stressed than kids who are not sharing family meals and they are less likely to try cigarettes, alcohol or smoke pot.

In “The Surprising Power of Family Meals,” author Miriam Weinstein suggests that we “rededicate our eating tables to their primary function when mealtime rolls around.” In other words, clear off the bills, homework and children’s art-work. The family meal is a time to regroup in a safe setting during a busy day in an “intentional” act. Families don’t need to have a special dining room or a rigid mealtime schedule. A family meal can be worked in around the schedule of family members and doesn’t need to be served on family china or with table linens. It isn’t necessary to plan a time-consuming menu. A fast food meal can be shared at the family table and eaten on paper plates with plastic ware, instead of in the car. It’s the coming together, face-to-face, that makes the difference. Infants and toddlers should always have a place at the table. Television and other media should be turned off during the family meal to encourage conversation and limit interruptions. 

Michigan State University Extension notes that sharing a meal at the family table is one small thing that families can control when raising children. For the health and well-being of your children and family, reinvent your family table.

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