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Family enjoying a meal

Mealtimes together can be a luxury for hectic families, yet plenty of research shows that no other hour in your children’s day serves up as many emotional, psychological, and nutritional benefits. And those benefits last a lifetime.

“Researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: Sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain, and the health of all family members,” says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. “Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of depression, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem.”

Family meals offer an opportunity to connect, while serving nutritious food and modeling healthy eating. This can lead to “healthier dietary intakes; less use of disordered eating behaviors, such as unhealthy weight-control practices; and stronger indicators of psychosocial well-being,” reports Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, professor and division head of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota and principal investigator of the Project EAT studies on teen welfare.

There isn’t a magic number for family meals, Fishel says, but the benefits accrue with every dinner. Here are four tips for better family meals:

  1. Make the commitment. Start small with one meal and one conversation, advises Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. Aim to schedule just one mealtime that works for every family member. Let everyone know and add the date to the calendar.
  2. Make it simple. Family meals don’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. What is everyone’s simplest, most loved meal? Cook it and enjoy it together.
  3. Make it fun. These dinners should be a welcoming time, not a place for stress, arguments, or grilling kids about their grades. Find the joy and keep it going.
  4. Make it matter. The things you share at dinner can help your relationships endure far beyond the table, says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD.

For other smart ideas on bringing your family together for meals, recipes, and even some engaging conversation topics, check out the Family Dinner Project’s website (TheFamilyDinnerProject.org) and Fishel’s book, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

Second Helpings

In the past two decades, numerous studies have proven what many parents have always intuitively realized: Eating together is a key to family bonding and raising happier, healthier children. Psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project and the mother of two sons, discusses the benefits of family mealtimes.

Experience Life | Are there proven psychological benefits to family dinners?

Anne Fishel | Absolutely. In the last 20 years, there have been dozens of studies showing that regular family dinners are great for children’s body, mind, and spirit — their mental health. By “regular,” I mean five or more meals a week — and these can be dinners, breakfasts, lunches, or even intentional snacks. Family meals are associated with lower rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, anxiety, depression, more resilient self-esteem, and a feeling of being more connected with parents.

EL | Are there nutritional benefits to eating dinner together?

AF | Yes. Home-cooked meals tend to be lower in sugar, salt, fat, and calories — and children are less likely to wash them down with soda. We tend to eat smaller portions at home. And it pays dividends after children leave home in that they eat more healthfully and are less likely to become obese.

EL | And are there other benefits?

AF | Intellectually, young kids benefit immensely from conversation at the table — it’s a better booster than even reading aloud to children. Parents may tell stories about their day or say, “Can you believe what so-and-so tweeted?” These conversations often include words that are unusual or more advanced than what kids find in picture books and, even if they’re not defined, children understand them in context. A Harvard study found that children might learn a thousand new words from these conversations versus 143 from children’s picture books.

For elementary-age kids, regular family dinners are more predictive of high achievement in school than even doing homework, extracurricular activities, or sports. And studies find that with teens, family dinners are associated with higher grades.

There are also unexpected benefits being discovered. Children who eat regular family meals have fewer asthma symptoms, according to research. They have lower stress levels, and stress can trigger asthma. Parents can check in to make sure kids are in medical compliance and spot smaller symptoms before they become problems. And home-cooked meals tend not to have food preservatives, which have been found to trigger asthma.

Other studies find these children have better overall cardiovascular health.|

Finding More Time to Eat Family Meals Together

“Time is the No. 1 obstacle for most families in eating together,” says psychologist and family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project. She offers several strategies for finding more time to dine together.

  • Take Advantage of Any Opportunity to Eat Together: “If you count all the meals in a week, there are 16 opportunities for your family to eat together,” she says. And to work around schedules, be flexible: Think of weekend brunches. Have intentional snacks together, such as an evening snack after homework is done.
  • Skip the Snooze Button: “Breakfast may work better for some families to eat together. If you don’t press the snooze button on your alarm clock, you get seven or 10 extra minutes in the morning and you can have a healthy breakfast and share fun and interesting conversation.”
  • Take Shortcuts to Meal Prep: “Don’t focus too much on the food not being gourmet or fancy or using heirloom tomatoes and such. The benefits of family meals come from more than just the food.” Fishel suggests ordering the occasional takeout meal or shortcuts such as buying a rotisserie chicken or precut vegetables. Make double batches of meals, freeze half, and heat it up for another dinner. And keep your larder stocked so you can whip up quick dishes when needed. “These shortcuts won’t subtract points from the power of a family dinner.”
  • Eat in Shifts: “Many families have desperate schedules with extracurricular activities and more, so try feeding in overlapping shifts. Feed younger kids cut-up vegetables and fruit, then the next shift can have the main meal, and you might all sit together for dessert.”
  • Prioritize: “Decide what your family values are,” she advises — and put family meals high on the list. She points to advice by family therapist William Doherty, PhD, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, who recommends that parents meet with teachers and soccer coaches and try to work out new times for performances and practice sessions if they are getting in the way of family meals. “Instead of the umpteenth extracurricular activity, sometimes you need to let go of certain things so you can have dinner together a couple times each week,” Fishel says.

She offers more ideas in her book, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

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Family-Dinner Conversation Starters

Harvard’s Family Dinner Project and its cofounder, Anne Fishel, PhD, suggest trying these conversation starters to keep table talk fun and interesting. For more smart conversation ideas, turn to Fishel’s book Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.

Ages 2–7

  • If you joined the circus, what would your act be?
  • Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?
  • If you had superpowers, what would they be — and how would you use them to help other people?

Ages 8–13

  • What’s your favorite movie or book — and what did you like about it?
  • If you were the principal of your school, would you change anything?
  • Can you guess all of the ingredients in this dish?

Ages 14–100

  • What’s one thing that you learned today that you think I might not know?
  • Do you know how we chose your name?
  • If you had one week, a car full of gas, a cooler full of food, and your two best friends, where would you go and what would you do?

This originally appeared as “The Many Benefits of Family Meals” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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