Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Family Resiliency Center
There is no mistaking it that family life is busy today. Parents work long hours, children are involved in activities after school, and it just seems like it is hard to find enough time in the day to shop for groceries and prepare a meal for the family. Families often feel pressured to share meals together and wonder—why does it matter?
I have been studying family mealtimes for over twenty years as a way to better understand how family interactions may be related to children’s health and wellbeing. We started out going to family homes and recording mealtimes because it was too difficult to get the entire family to come into a university-based laboratory. What began as a creative research process has turned into a career of documenting how this brief encounter can have powerful effects on child development.
First, do families eat together?
Contrary to public opinion, national surveys conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that for families with children under the age of 17, the average number of meals shared together per week was 5.77. Of course, this does not tell the whole story because it depends on what goes on during the meal that effects child outcomes.
How is sharing meals associated with child health?
The most intuitive answer is that if children are eating with their families then, hopefully, they aren’t eating junk food. There is some evidence that families who eat together four or more times a week also consume more fresh fruits and vegetables. However, less obvious, is the relation between sharing meals and other physical health outcomes. For example, regularly sharing meals together has been found to reduce the risk for obesity, reduce the risk for eating disorders, and is associated with some indicators of positive mental health and self esteem.
What about other child outcomes?
Some research suggests that regularly sharing meals together is associated with better academic success and reduced risk for substance abuse as an adolescent. However, the findings from these studies are less consistent and need to be looked at with caution.
What are the essential ingredients of healthy mealtime?
Researchers have identified several characteristics of a healthy mealtime. First, there needs to be some regularity in terms of place and time. This doesn’t mean that dinner has to be at 6:00 sharp but the expectation that you know, in general, who will show up and what time everyone is expected to be home sets the stage for a regular routine.
Second, there need to be minimal distractions. This includes cell phones, television, media, and loud noises. In research conducted at the University of Illinois, we found that even exposure to a loud vacuum cleaner for 10 minutes could affect how much food the family ate and the ways in which they talked to each other.
Third, communicating in positive ways and attending to emotions that demonstrate parents truly care about the events of the day are key to calm and meaningful mealtimes. This does not mean that there are long drawn out conversations about every detail of the day. Rather, this is a time to catch up on what happened at school, on the bus, or in the neighborhood.
What gets in the way of sharing meals together?
Behavioral issues and time management are consistently mentioned by parents as the main barriers to either sharing meals together or having a calm meal with their family. Behavioral issues such as picky eating, sibling conflict, and having temper tantrums at the table are frequently mentioned as barriers. Having time to grocery shop, getting help in preparing meals, and lack of cooking skills are also mentioned.
The best place to start is to know that mealtimes can be manageable and in your control.
- Set reasonable expectations. Most meals last 18-20 minutes. Set aside four to five times a week to share a meal together. This may not always be the evening meal as schedules change.
- Create a regular routine around meals. Eat around a table, eat around the same time, and plan ahead to reduce stress.
- Reduce distractions. Turn off the TV, put cell phones in a basket away from the table, and turn off all media.
- Assign roles. Get multiple members of the family to help. Starting in the preschool years, even young children can play a role in setting the table or simple food preparations. As children get older, involve them in menu preparation and cooking.
- Create conversation starters. Involve children in conversation at the table. This may range from telling jokes, learning about grandparents, or planning a special meal for the weekend.
Proper citation link for this blog post:
Fiese, B. H. (2016, June 21). Family Mealtimes- Why Do They Matter?. Retrieved from http://infoaboutkids.org/blog/family-mealtimes-why-do-they-matter/