The best part of my day always comes toward the end, when I sit down for dinner with my wife and our two children. Nina and Albert are 9 and 4, so it’s rarely a quiet or orderly occasion: food inevitably ends up all over the table or on the floor, they both have trouble staying seated, and those last few bites of vegetables always require significant negotiation. But those are small concerns, outweighed by my gratitude for this daily time together. When they’re grown, I know I’ll miss those messes.
Family meals aren’t just a respite for harried parents, however. Research shows that adolescents who regularly eat meals with their parents tend to eat more fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, and are less likely to be overweight. A positive family atmosphere during regular meal times has also been shown to reduce the occurrence of eating disorders in adolescents, regardless of demographic characteristics and body-mass index. More broadly, watching parents eat healthily, day in and day out, can positively influence children’s own behavior and nutritional choices as they grow.
The benefits go beyond nutrition, too. Eating together can improve parent-child relationships, and give kids a sense of stability and connectedness. Children younger than 13 who regularly eat meals with their families exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and mealtime conversations have been tied to improved literacy. While the frequency of meals with family tends to dwindle through high school, teens who eat with their families tend to be healthier, happier, and less inclined toward risky behavior. They are less likely to think about suicide, take drugs, or suffer from depression, and more likely to get better grades and delay having sex.
Meals are also where we learn our family and cultural values, and where we establish our personal tastes. As a parent, I’ve seen that experimenting with new foods is one of the first leaps into big-kid territory that little ones often make. Those occasions—like the time Nina and Albert first tried their Polish grandmother’s pierogi—become important family memories, as meaningful as any vacation or night out. And dinner at home is a much more accessible experience, especially for families of limited economic means.
That may explain why low-income families are more likely to eat meals together more often than higher-income ones. In 2011 and 2012, the most recent data available, 51 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in households at or below the poverty level ate family meals at least six days a week. For comparison, only 36 percent of similar-aged young people eat that many family meals if their household income is at least double the poverty level.
The wider trends are less encouraging, however. When parents work multiple jobs or odd hours—or have to travel long distances to reach the nearest available work—finding the time for family togetherness can be a challenge. Between 1999 and 2010, the number of low-income families who ate meals together actually dropped, while the number for affluent families increased.
This is a troubling development. With all that we know about the physical and psychological toll of long-term poverty, low-income families deserve the benefits of family mealtimes as much as anyone. In a perfect world, all parents would have the ability to regularly join their children for meals. But every parent can make the effort to gather their kids around the table at least a couple times a week. The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization from Harvard University, offers some helpful resources (including recipes and conversation-starters) for families who need a push to get started. There are few easier or more effective ways to improve family closeness and children’s well-being.
John Lingan, Senior Writer and Digital Media Editor