This holiday season, one of the most valuable gifts you'll give your family won't come wrapped in a box or have a card attached. Instead, it will happen around your dining table, where you'll sit down to share a meal, conversation, and traditions with the people who matter most to you. And as special as family meals are throughout the holidays, they can also significantly enhance the life of your family every day.
A recent study found families who regularly eat together are closer than those who eat separately.
"Families who eat together have healthier, more balanced diets," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., L.D.N., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Making family mealtime a priority not only improves everyone's physical health, but it also contributes to their overall well-being and mental health."
Opportunity to eat better
"In years past, it may seem that families gathered around the table more often than they do today," says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., professor of community nutrition intervention at the University of Minnesota. "But family meals are making a comeback." A 2007 Columbia University survey of more than 1,500 teens and parents found that 59 percent of teens eat dinner with their families at least five times a week, an increase of 12 percent over the last decade. Adolescents eat 65 percent of their meals at home, according to a 2006 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. And we're cooking most of the meals we eat at home. A 2006 Harris Interactive Poll of 3,152 adults found that 93 percent of family meals are still cooked at home.
More meals prepared and eaten together means better nutrition, more control over what's eaten, and less weight gain for the whole family. A 2000 Harvard Medical School study of more than 16,000 boys and girls aged nine to 14 reveals adolescents who shared frequent meals with their families ate more fruits and vegetables and less fried food, saturated fat, and trans fat. They also consumed more calcium, iron, folate, fiber, and vitamins C, E, B6, and B12.
What's more, researchers speculate that families who eat together often are more likely to talk about nutrition at the dinner table than families who select individual meals from the kitchen, then go their separate ways.
These valuable lessons carry over into adulthood. When researchers from the University of Minnesota tracked the eating habits of 1,700 adolescents into their early adult years, they found those who dined often with their families ate more produce, routinely ate breakfast, and drank less soda as young adults.
Eating together provides structure that helps both children and adults develop sound eating patterns, resulting in regular mealtimes and less solitary munching in front of the computer or the TV. "When children have family meals growing up, they are more likely to eat regularly scheduled meals as adults," says Ellyn Satter, M.S., R.D., L.C.S.W., a family therapist and author of "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family." "People who grab food when they happen to think about it or absentmindedly snack instead of taking the time to sit down and eat don't do as well with diet quality and weight maintenance."
Experts suspect that eating as a family provides other food-related lessons as well. "The ritual of preparing family meals teaches your children how to cook and that good food is important," says Helaine R. H. Rockett, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., nutrition research manager at Harvard Medical School's Channing Laboratory. "It also provides delicious memories. Often, the foods served at home become lifelong favorites because of the love and care of the person who prepared them."
Chance to connect
The health benefits of family meals go beyond the physical.
A 2004 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study found families who regularly eat together are closer than those who eat separately. To measure "family connectedness," University of Minnesota researchers asked questions of the children, such as how much they thought their parent(s) cared about them or if they thought they could talk to a parent about their problems, then ranked answers on a four-point scale and correlated them with frequency of family meals. Those who answered in the positive were more likely to eat regularly with parents and siblings.
"Sitting down to a meal together provides an opportunity to connect and talk with your kids and find out what's going on in their lives," says Neumark-Sztainer. Almost half the teens participating in the Columbia study felt that dinner was the best time to talk with parents about important issues. "Because it's at the end of the day, dinner provides a special opportunity," Rockett says. "That's when we're not running off to go to school, work, or the next event, so we can really enjoy each other's company."