Why Family Meals are Important
As people have gotten busier, and technology has become a more crucial part of our lives, an important part of the regular day has begun to suffer: the family meal. But I don't mean that it is important in terms of values or tradition (though you can certainly make that argument). Instead, the reason reductions and changes in family meals are concerning is the role family meals play in both mental and physical health. Here, I want to summarize the important role that family meals play.
First, family meals have been linked to healthier diets. There are debates as to why this is the case, but families tend to eat healthier when they eat together. It could be that it's easier to justify the time commitment needed for most healthy foods if the meal is for multiple people, or maybe the people cooking feel more responsibility when they are actually seeing the other family members eat. Whatever the reason, families that eat together have been found to have higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, and lower intake of fats.
As part of my thesis identified, family meals are associated with a reduction in sedentary behaviors (at least sedentary screen time). Again, the reason for this isn't clearly understood. Meals offer parents a chance to model healthy behaviors for their children, so it could be that children feel more motivated to stay active if they have this exposure during meals. There is also some thought that meals (which, to be fair, are typically sedentary) are not usually measured as sedentary and they replace time that would otherwise be spent on things like watching TV. Either way, there is some support for family meals reducing time spent sedentary, which may play a role in some of the mental health benefits.
Family meals have also been linked to reduced depressed mood. Some of this may be explained by the effects on sedentary behavior (based on the results of my thesis, which you can find on my research page). Some of this could also be related again to positive modeling from parents. Family meals can offer children a time to talk with their parents about the difficulties they are experiencing in their lives. As part of the conversation, parents can offer helpful advice. In addition, children can see how their parents handle the stresses that they face in their lives, which can provide them with coping skills.
Another mental health-related factor that I've seen research evidence suggesting is helped by family meals is socio-emotional development. That's a big phrase, but ultimately it comes down to social skills and emotion regulation. Just like reducing depressed mood, family meals again provide families a chance to teach children how to be more socially interactive, and how to manage their emotions. Some of this development can even simply come from the face-to-face interactions, which are becoming less common as people spend more time facing screens.
Although the exact ways that family meals improve physical and mental health are still not clearly understood, there is a good amount of evidence to support the positive outcomes. Family meals don't need to be large, fancy, or overly time-consuming either. Just having the family together when people are eating can lead to positive health outcomes. Of course, there are plenty of barriers to family meals, including schedules that may make it difficult for everyone to eat at the same time. But given what we know about the benefits of family meals, maybe it's time people start to prioritize them a little bit more.
Do you still have frequent family meals? What kind of benefits have you noticed from them? If you don't have many meals as a family, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!