The value of family meal time

Families are busy, but it is incredibly valuable for families to pause and take time to share meals together. Learn more about the benefits that accompany family meal times, how to get started with family meal times and tips to making meals special.

Today’s families are busier than they have ever been!  Kids are involved in more extracurricular activities and parents have a booming social life too.  Parents are running their kids here, then running them there all while switching the laundry from washer to dryer and taking two minutes to let the dog out.  If this sounds like your family you are not alone.  Michigan State University Extension says there are three times each day when parents need to pause and think; meal times!

Here are some surprising statistics collected by about what we know:

  • The average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children.
  • Family dinners are more important than play, story time and other family events in the development of vocabulary of younger children.
  • Frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs. Additional associations include lower incidence of depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and better grades in 11 to 18 year olds.
  • Adolescent girls who have frequent family meals, and a positive atmosphere during those meals, are less likely to have eating disorders.
  • Kids who eat most often with their parents are 40 percent more likely to say they get mainly A’s and B’s in school than kids who have two or fewer family dinners a week.

The benefits of sharing a meal together as a family are incredible. Not only can the family, as a unit, benefit, but so can the children and the overall health of the family. In an article  by Sean Brotherson, Ph.D at North Dakota State University, it is suggested that sharing a family meal provides an experiences that touches all of our senses; sight, touch, taste, smell and listening to warm laughter or good conversation.  Furthermore, family meals help provide a regular, consistent opportunity to create a shared experience that is meaningful and offers a sense of belonging to all.

So, how do you start?  Eliza Cook and Rachel Dunifon of Cornell University suggest setting a goal to have regular family meals at least three times per week, if possible.  It’s okay if you aren’t having dinner together; the time a family spends together can be done during breakfast or lunch, as well as during a similar activity that encourages your family to come together.

So far we know that there are benefits to sharing a family meal and we know how to get started, but what happens once a family actually sits down for a meal? published an article by Anita Gurian, Ph.D that suggests the following tips to make meals special:

  • Communication starts before meal time and continues afterward. Have kids help in preparation, clearing and cleanup, but do not present it as a chore and instead as part of a group effort. Their participation makes them feel valued and respected.
  • Avoid criticism and passing judgment. Meal time is not a time for complaints or for too many questions.
  • Specific, non-judgmental remarks or questions can get kids started. They’ll learn to take turns and listen to other’s valuable social skills in many situations.
  • Parents can share something interesting about their day, too. When parents talk about their experiences, they’re providing models of behavior and sharing of values.
  • Meal time is a good time to learn manners—setting the table, taking turns, passing food and other customs can become habits.
  • Family meals don’t always have to be in the same place or at the same time; lunch, brunch or picnics work just as well.

There are so many valuable life skills that youth can gain by actively engaging in meal time with their family including healthy lifestyle choices, teamwork, sharing, communication and problem solving.  In the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program and the Children and Youth Institute the Targeting Life Skills Model is an example of how parents and youth can learn more about the life skills youth can gain.