Breaking Bread, Promoting Wellness: Some Health Benefits of Shared Family Meals
Bachelor’s Student in Public Health
Some of my most cherished childhood memories involve sharing meals with family and friends. Some of the most important conversations in my life happened over a communal meal. And some of my funniest memories were made while sharing a snack.
But I never would have thought that time spent with family while sharing a meal or snack could give me a lower risk of depressive disorders, improved social interactions, and even a higher chance of academic success.
Most studies show that more frequent family meals are associated with an increased consumption of healthy foods.
Research on family meals and possible long-term benefits are still emerging, but most studies to date show that more frequent family meals are associated with an increased consumption of healthy foods over unhealthy foods.1
A study of “unhealthy” eating patterns indicated that young children in families sharing at least three meals per week were 20 percent less likely to develop unhealthy eating patterns than those who ate family meals less often.2 Studies examining family meal frequency and weight status compared eating at least three family meals together each week to eating fewer than three meals together each week. Results showed that children in families sharing at least three meals per week increased their chance by 24 percent of eating healthy foods and maintaining those healthy habits compared to families that shared few or no meals.2
Throughout these studies, examples of unhealthy foods include sugary beverages, fast foods, and sweet desserts as well as behaviors like skipping breakfast or not eating at least two servings of fruits or vegetables a day. Examples of healthy food choices included eating the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, taking multivitamins, and eating breakfast.
Studies that examined young children only—rather than including adolescents—were able to demonstrate more significant long-term effects. Shared family meals are demonstrably more effective for younger children because families have more control over schedule and other logistics. Family mealtimes are more likely to decrease as children grow into their adolescent years.2
Many external factors can get in the way of a family’s ability to eat a meal together. Here are three tips to improve your family’s chances of making communal mealtimes happen:3
1. Get to three: Try to have regular shared family meals or snacks at least three times per week if possible, with both or at least one caretaker or parent present.
2. Consistency is key: Try to incorporate family mealtime into a consistent overall family routine.
3. Quality over quantity: Decrease possible outside distractions during mealtime by turning off televisions and computers, stashing cell phones, stowing reading materials, and working toward a schedule that allows everyone to be together for the full duration of the snack or meal. Preparing a meal together is another great way to spend quality time together as a family and, in many cases, to increase the nutritional quality of the meal.
So many aspects of our lives can become distractions that keep us from interacting and connecting even with our own family members. And when those distractions coalesce, we often substitute less healthy food choices. All of this in turn can affect our overall health and wellness. The simple act of sharing a healthy meal together can create mental and physical health benefits as well as family memories that will stay with us for years.
- Martin-Biggers, Jennifer, et al, “Come and Get It! A Discussion of Family Mealtime Literature and Factors Affecting Obesity Risk,” Advances in Nutrition 5/3 (May 2014):235–47.
- Hammons, Amber J., and Barbara H. Fiese, “Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?” Pediatrics 127/6 (June 2011), e1565-74.
- Cook, Eliza, and Rachel Dunifon, “Do Family Meals Really Make a Difference?” Cornell Cooperative Extension, 2012.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joeita Macfield is a junior at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is a research assistant for Cindy Leung in the Nutritional Sciences Department studying physical and cognitive effects of food insecurity in mothers and children. She hopes to become a physician who understands the many factors affecting individual health so she can treat patients holistically.