Family meals: boon or burden?
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Could family meals be the answer to your child's fussy eating? Or are they doing more harm than good?
In the first of a series of three articles, family health coach Sarah Griffith takes a closer look at the family meal.
Back in 1995 the famous psychologist Dorothy Rowe wrote an article in the Guardian about the death of the family meal. And as far as she was concerned, it was good riddance.
Rowe did not have a good relationship with her mother, and mealtimes when she was growing up sounded like truly miserable experiences. Her verdict on family meals: "all human life is there, and usually the worst part of it."
Perhaps you agree with Dorothy Rowe, and feel as though meals together are best avoided. Or maybe in your home, family meals happen often and easily - a usually pleasant and routine part of family life. Or perhaps you're in the undecided camp, with mixed feelings on the subject.
Whatever your personal experience, researchers have long suspected that there might be a relationship between family meals and various positive outcomes for children.
What does the evidence say about parents and children eating together?
1. Enjoyment of food and relationship with food
Research shows that the way we eat at home is the way children learn to eat for life, and that family food-culture and habits can strongly influence a child’s future relationship with food.
And our enjoyment of food is widely accepted to have a strong social element. The family meal – a social experience - helps here too.
This evidence informs one of the key elements of the highly respected approach taken by the Ellyn Satter Institute in the US to help parents with child feeding difficulties. And it's an approach that my family health coaching clients can find really useful.
So if fussy eating or other child feeding difficulties are something that you're currently struggling with, sitting down to more family meals could be a good place to start.
2. Physical wellbeing
Research shows that for children who eat regular family meals there is a correlation between an increased consumption of vegetables and fruit and a decreased consumption of fried foods and soft drinks.
This benefit carries on into adult life. People who ate regular family meals as teens are more likely to eat healthily when they leave home, and less likely to become obese.
Of course, taking care of our physical health doesn't start and stop here, but it's a useful reminder that it's not only about exercise and nutrition. Our wellness - and our ability to look after ourselves and our loved ones well - can be affected by many (and not always obvious) interconnected threads.
3. Emotional wellbeing
Research also indicates that teenagers may benefit emotionally from regular family meals. Some of the benefits studied include:
lower risk-taking behaviour (which includes drug use, sexual activity, smoking, violence, binge drinking and trouble at school)
lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts
increased positive mood
greater resilience to bullying
a more positive outlook for the future
Clearly, as in Dorothy Rowe's case, if family relationships have already broken down, then putting them under the microscope of regular family meals may well do more harm than good. And they shouldn't be held out as a magic wand that is single-handedly able to fix whatever ails a particular family or the individuals in it. But other things being equal, it seems that family meals could provide an opportunity to buffer children from some of life's pressures.
4. Academic attainment
Regular family meals also seem to be a stronger predictor of academic attainment than doing homework, playing sport - or even spending time in school.
Before children get to school, those who have been eating regular family meals may already have been learning more than you think: a study showed that dinnertime conversations with parents could increase a child’s vocabulary more than being read to - by up to a factor of seven.
And it could be just as important for teens: one study showed that teens who ate with their families 5-7 times each were week twice as likely to get top grades than those who ate family meals only twice-weekly or less.
What is it that underpins all these benefits?
The short answer is that the family meal is a time for parents and children to sit down and communicate with one another.
The family meal can be a time to notice each other, listen, share and learn. A time to laugh, play or debate. And, less joyful but just as valuable, an opportunity for parents to mediate any simmering sibling resentments and disagreements, or for parents and children to negotiate responsibilities and reinforce boundaries.
If our shared experience also extends to the meal prep and to clearing away, this creates an opportunity for children to learn responsibility and important practical skills for living a healthy, independent life when the time comes.
Does this sound like too much pressure? It doesn’t have to be.
At this point it’s important to be clear what represents a ‘family meal’.
By family meal, I am not talking about some kind of nutritionally perfect, organic, beautifully presented feast. Eating a takeaway or ready meal together will serve the same bonding function.
And it doesn’t take two parents to make a family meal happen. One parent sitting down with the children is what makes the difference.
In fact, it seems that to reap many of the benefits, there is really only one golden rule: no eating in front of screens.
Regularly eating in front of a screen has been linked to worse health outcomes for adults and children alike, and undermines all those potential family meal benefits.
And absolutely none of this is should be read as encouragement to start stressing about food and mealtimes. Not only are you less likely to enjoy your time together - and your food - but increased stress levels can reduce your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and may even lead to less healthy food choices for everyone.
I'm sure that there are myriad ways that parents and children can spend time together that will bring many of the benefits claimed for family meals. Long family walks, car journeys, playing games or sport together, to name a few.
But for those of you who feel you might be able to eat together more often, why not give it a go?
It's easy to get out of the habit of eating together with our screens off, without even noticing it's happening.
We can cram more and more in, until it feels impractical to eat together. Or we stay just a bit later at work and before we know it we're never home in time to eat with the rest of the family. Or we're so stretched and frazzled that meals become a time for multi-tasking on our phones or escaping into the world of digital entertainment.
Dorothy Rowe was certainly an advocate of parents making themselves available to listen. She was also in favour of family members talking to each other. In her case, just not over dinner!
And while I do not agree with Rowe's prescription that family meals should be abandoned as a matter of course on the basis that they are likely to be too fraught to do any good, I'm with her 100% when she says: "as everyone should know by now, it is vital that we talk to one another".
And if it's possible for us to do that over a meal with our children, they could get more out of it than we bargained for. After all, it's about so much more than getting them to eat their broccoli.
This is the first in a series of three blogs about family meals. 'The 'new normal' for family meals', and 'tips to make family meals' happen are coming over the next few weeks. Just subscribe to my newsletter if you want my blogs delivered directly to your inbox.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. If you would like to ask her about how she might be able to support you with any difficulties you are experiencing with mealtimes, whatever age your children, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07884 966087 to book a free 20 minute exploratory consultation.