It may be difficult to imagine, but a few generations ago, families routinely ate meals together. This was especially true for breakfast and dinner. While breakfast might be a little rushed and lunch would likely be away from home, there was time for a more restful dinner. In general, after a long day of work outside the home, the father would return, and the family would sit around the table eating the food prepared by the mother. Each dinner, which included a salad, an entrée, and a dessert, could easily take 20 to 30 minutes or more to consume.
Today, such a daily scenario is hard to imagine. With both parents often working outside the home and with kids’ schedules filled with afterschool activities, eating on the run has become fairly common. In fact, in many households, Monday through Friday family dinners are rare; even Saturday and Sunday family dinners may be difficult to coordinate.
Yet, according to researchers, the lack of time for family dinners is a truly unfortunate situation. People who are able to arrange these meals with some degree of regularity appear to obtain a number of benefits. There is even a Cambridge, Massachusetts, organization dedicated to supporting family dinners—the Family Dinner Project.
According to the Family Dinner Project Web site, “most American families are starved for time to spend together.” In fact, “dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect.” During a family dinner, family members may “relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.” 1
In a study published in 2011 in Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, conducted a meta-analysis of 17 studies to determine the association between shared family meals and the nutritional health of children and teens. Their analysis included a total of 182,836 children and teens and focused on the three major public health concerns of obesity, unhealthy eating, and disordered eating. The researchers found that the frequency of shared family meals is “significantly related” to the nutritional health of children and teens. “Overall, families that eat five or more meals together have children who are [about] 25% less likely to encounter nutritional health issues than children who eat [less than] one meal with their families.” Thus, “shared meals seem to operate as a protective factor for overweight, unhealthy eating, and disordered eating.” 3
In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, researchers from the United Kingdom wanted to learn more about how the home environment of children affected their intake of fruits and vegetables. The cohort consisted of 2,383 children with a mean age of 8.3 years; all of the children attended London primary schools. The researchers learned that the children from families that reported “always” eating family meals ate 125 g more fruits and vegetables than families who never ate meals together. Likewise, when compared to parents who rarely or never consumed fruits and vegetables, the daily consumption of fruits and vegetables by parents was associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake of children. Interestingly, when parents cut up the fruits and vegetables, the children ate 44 g more than the children in families where parents did not cup up the fruits and vegetables. The researchers concluded that their findings “illustrate a positive public health message for parents, which could improve their own dietary habits and their children’s. The key message from this research is for families to eat fruit and vegetables together at a mealtime.” 4
In a study published in 2013 in Public Health Nutrition, researchers from the University of Texas in Austin explored the association between family meals and parental encouragement of healthy eating. The cohort consisted of 2,895 Texas eighth grade students. About half of the children were Hispanic and about one-fourth of them were white. They were divided into three groups—those who ate family meals seven or more times per week, those who ate family meals three to six times per week, and those who ate family meals no more than two times per week. The researchers also created a means to assess how often parents encouraged their children to eat fruits and vegetables, drink water, eat wholegrain bread, eat breakfast, and drink low-fat milk. The researchers found that white students averaged 4.4 family meals during the previous seven days; Hispanic youth had 4.2, and African American youth had 3.7. And, family meal frequency was “significantly associated with encouragement of healthy eating.” Moreover, there were no significant differences between the various ethnic groups. According to the researchers, “this suggests that regardless of ethnic differences, parental encouragement may provide the link between family meals and positive dietary benefits for youth.” 6
In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, reviewed five-year longitudinal associations between family meal patterns and substance abuse in teens. The cohort consisted of 806 Minnesota teens who were interviewed when they had a mean age of 12.8 years and surveyed by mail when they had a mean age of 17.2 years. The researchers found that with the female teens family meals were correlated with significantly lower odds of cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and marijuana use. “Female adolescents reporting regular family meals had odds of cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and marijuana use at follow-up that were approximately half the odds for females who did not report regular family meals at baseline.” This relationship was not seen with the male teens. The researchers concluded that “regular family meals in adolescence may have a long-term protective association with the development of substance use over 5 years among female adolescents.” 7
Most likely, many people do not realize the value of family meals. In today’s world, where both parents often work full-time, demanding jobs, it is not uncommon for meals to be rushed, eaten in the car or in front of the television or computer screen. Making time for family meals is just one more thing for overscheduled parents to coordinate. By the end of a long day, parents may be simply grateful to put together some sort of dinner for their hungry children. They know that their daily responsibilities are far from over. Parents may need to clean the dishes, help with homework, and find time to wash and dry a few loads of laundry. Nevertheless, there is some research on dealing with barriers to family meals.
In a study published in 2011 in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and San Diego, California, conducted focus groups with working parents of children between the ages of 8 and 10 years. They wanted to learn more about the barriers that parents face concerning family meals; they also wanted to collect ideas on interventions that could facilitate the frequency of these meals. More than half of the parents reported have family dinners at least three times per week. During the work week, the primary reason for not having more family dinners was “time constraints” such as work schedules and the children’s extracurricular activities. “Parent comments consistently revealed how difficult it is for parents to prepare meals with time constraints and other responsibilities.” Moreover, parents are often multitasking during dinner. So, while they may be nearby, parents are not necessarily interacting with their children. “Parents reported going through the mail, reading their children’s homework or school-related notes, cleaning and other household chores.” 9
1. The Family Dinner Project, http://thefamilydinnerproject.org.
3. Amber J. Hammons and Barbara H. Fiese, “Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?” Pediatrics 127, no. 6 (2011): e1565-el574.
4. Meaghan S. Christian, Charlotte E. L. Evans, Neil Hancock et al., “Family Meals Can Help Children Reach Their 5 a Day: a Cross-Sectional Survey of Children’s Dietary Intake from London Primary Schools,” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 67, no. 4 (2013): 332-38.
5. Gary S. Goldfield, Marisa A. Murray, Annick Buchholz et al., “Family Meals and Body Mass Index Among Adolescents: Effects of Gender,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 36 (2011): 539-46.
6. Natalie S. Poulos, Keryn E. Pasch, Andrew E. Springer et al., “Is Frequency of Family Meals Associated with Parental Encouragement of Healthy Eating Among Ethnically Diverse Eighth Graders?” Public Health Nutrition 17, no. 5 (2013): 998-1003.
7. Marla E. Eisenberg, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Jayne A. Fulkerson et al., “Family Meals and Substance Use: Is There a Long-Term Protective Association?” Journal of Adolescent Health 43 (2008): 151-56.
8. Monica L. Wang, Karen E. Peterson, Tracy K. Richmond et al., “Family Physical Activity and Meal Practices Associated with Disordered Weight Control Behaviors in a Multiethnic Sample of Middle-School Youth,” Academic Pediatrics 13, no. 4 (2013): 379-85.
9. Jayne A. Fulkerson, Martha Y. Kubik, Sarah Rydell et al., “Focus Groups with Working Parents of School-Aged Children: What’s Needed to Improve Family Meals?” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 43, no. 3 (2011): 189-93.
10. Alisha J. Rovner, Sanjeev N. Mehta, Denise L. Haynie et al., “Perceived Benefits, Barriers, and Strategies of Family Meals Among Children with Type 1 Diabetes and Their Parents,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110, no. 9 (2010): 1302-6.
Christian, Meaghan S., Charlotte E. L. Evans, Neil Hancock et al. “Family Meals Can Help Children Reach Their 5 a Day: A Cross-Sectional Survey of Children’s Dietary Intake from London Primary Schools.” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 67, no. 4 (2013): 332-38.
Eisenberg, Marla E., Diane Neumark-Sztainer, Jayne A. Fulkerson et al. “Family Meals and Substance Use: Is There a Long-Term Protective Association?” Journal of Adolescent Health 43 (2008): 151-56.
Fink, Sara K., Elizabeth F. Racine, Rebecca E. Mueffelmann et al. “Family Meals and Diet Quality Among Children and Adolescents in North Carolina.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 46 (2014): 418-22.
Fulkerson, Jayne A., Martha Y. Kubik, Sarah Rydell et al. “Focus Groups with Working Parents of School-Aged Children: What’s Needed to Improve Family Meals?” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 43, no. 3 (2011): 189-93.
Goldfield, Gary S., Marisa A. Murray, Annick Buchholz et al. “Family Meals and Body Mass Index Among Adolescents: Effects of Gender.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 36 (2011): 539-46.
Hammons, Amber J. and Barbara H. Fiese. “Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?” Pediatrics 127, no. 6 (2011): e1565-e1574.
Larson, Nicole, Jayne Fulkerson, Mary Story et al. 2012. “Shared Meals Among Young Adults are Associated with Better Diet Quality and Predicted by Family Meal Patterns During Adolescence.” Public Health Nutrition 16, no. 5 (2012): 883-93.
Poulos, Natalie S., Keryn E. Pasch, Andrew E. Springer et al. “Is Frequency of Family Meals Associated with Parental Encouragement of Healthy Eating Among Ethnically Diverse Eighth Graders?” Public Health Nutrition 17, no. 5 (2014): 998-1003.
Rovner, Alisha J., Sanjeev N. Mehta, Denise L. Haynie et al. “Perceived Benefits, Barriers, and Strategies of Family Meals Among Children with Type 1 Diabetes and Their Parents: Focus Group Findings.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110, no. 9 (2010): 1302-6.
Wang, Monica L., Karen E. Peterson, Tracy K. Richmond et al. “Family Physical Activity and Meal Practices Associated with Disordered Weight Control Behaviors in a Multiethnic Sample of Middle-School Youth.” Academic Pediatrics 13, no. 4 (2013): 379-85.
The Family Dinner Project. http://thefamilydinnerproject.org .