You may have heard me talking about the importance of eating together as a family, but as you’re watching your baby dump food off their tray or your toddler run circles around the table, you wonder, “Is it really worth it? Do the benefits outweigh the stress?”
First, I have tips for encouraging your toddler to remain seated and to help prevent your kid from throwing their food across the room. I promise family meals don’t need to be stressful (I created a whole course on that premise)! Plus there are really so many benefits from eating together as a family, even if your whole family isn’t present.
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Most of these benefits were seen with 3 family meals/week. If you can do more, great. If you’re not there yet, that’s ok too. Just do the best you can. Start with one meal and work your way up. The most important thing to include in your family meal is you. Even if the whole family can’t be present, just try to make sure there is 1 adult with your child.
1. Choose More Nutrient-Dense Foods
Studies have shown that kids who take part in regular family meals tend to choose more nutrient-dense foods, or foods that are generally considered “healthy.” (1) One theory behind this is that they watch their adults model ideal eating patterns. One of the best ways to get our kids to eat more vegetables is to eat more vegetables in front of them!
2. Increased Opportunity for Modeling
If you want your child to eat more veggies or use table manners, one of the best ways to teach them is by modeling the behavior. Family meals provide a great way to do this. You don’t need to draw any extra attention to the behavior, just do what you want your child to do.
3. Reduced Risk of Disordered Eating
Did you know that kids are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than diabetes? Family meals are associated with a decreased risk of disordered eating. This could be because parents are more aware of what their child is eating and are able to stop eating patterns before they fully develop.
4. Enhanced Vocabulary
Family meals are a great opportunity to speak with your children. There are so many words you can use to describe food (that aren’t good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, yummy/yucky). We use all of our senses when we eat which gives us so many options to expand our children’s vocabularies.
5. Improved Academic Success
Research has shown that family meals are associated with improved academic success, even if both parents aren’t available. Good grades were highly correlated with the frequency of family meals. (2)
6. Increased Self Confidence
Children who regularly eat meals with their families tend to have increased self confidence and resilience. This can set them up for success in so many ways. It will help prepare them for many of the problems they will face in the future.
7. Family Closeness
It may come as no surprise that spending time together fosters closeness within the family. This starts as setting up routines with young children and extends to teens feeling comfortable having serious conversations with their parents.
8. Less Likely to Engage in High-Risk Behaviors
Kids and teens who regularly have family meals are less likely to do drugs, use alcohol, or smoke. If you’re dealing with a toddler, this may not be on your radar, but remember we are setting up the foundations for our kids for life.
9. More Likely to Be Within the Normal Weight Range
You may have heard me get on my soap box about issues with growth charts and healthy weights in children, but studies have shown that children and adolescents who partake in regular family meals are more likely to be within the normal weight range. This could be because they are choosing more nutrient-dense foods.
Tips for Making It Work
If you have a busy schedule, multiple kids, are sleep deprived, or one of countless other problems, it can be very difficult to make eating together as a family a priority. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself! Just do the best you can.
- It doesn’t need to be dinner. If breakfast, lunch, or snacks (even bedtime snacks) work better, that’s great!
- The goal is 3 meals/week. If all 3 meals are on weekends, that’s a good place to start.
- If you have multiple kids and a partner, divide and conquer. Remember that they key is to have 1 adult at a meal.
- It’s ok to have the family meal at a team practice, in a car (parked safely), or anywhere else that works for your family.
- You don’t need to be eating the same thing. If your children eat dinner early, have a snack with them and eat your dinner after bedtime.
If you’re looking for more support on making family meals work for you, check out my Family Meals Made Easy Course. It’s designed to take the stress out of mealtime.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.