Jobs, children, afterschool activities, and the normal hectic pace of life can make it difficult to prepare and eat meals at home. However, the increased time at home for some families as a result of COVID-19 has provided the opportunity to establish new routines. One of the unexpected, positive results has been the renewed interest in developing cooking skills and having regular family meals together.

A systematic literature review with meta-analysis published in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior showed a positive relationship between family mealtime and improved consumption of fruits and vegetables, communication, and overall family functioning. The greater the frequency of family meals, the better the outcome. A Harvard study found that when families eat together, they are twice as likely to get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables as families who do not eat together.

The benefits of family meals are numerous. In addition to improving the consumption of fruits and vegetables, family meals tend to be more budget-friendly than meals eaten at restaurants and may help prevent obesity. People tend to eat more slowly and eat less during family meals because they are talking more. It is also easier to control portion sizes when eating at home. Eating at home can also be substantially cheaper than eating out.

An average restaurant meal cost about $13.00 per person, while an average meal cooked at home cost about $4.00 per meal. However, the benefits do not stop with our waistline and budget. Anne Fishel, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, family therapist, and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, reports that family mealtimes improve language and cognitive development in children. According to Fishel, the narrative talk typical of family mealtime conversation can help young children recognize sequence of events, learn about numbers, and expand their vocabulary.

Fishel also noted that young children learned more words through dinnertime conversation than they did from parents reading books aloud. A study by University of Michigan researchers looked at how children spend their time and the association with academic achievement and behavior.

Family mealtime was strongly associated with fewer behavior problems and increased academic achievement. For school-aged children, regular family mealtimes were a stronger predictor of academic achievement than time spent at school or time completing homework.

For many families, mealtime is the only time the family is together. A family meal can improve communication skills, provide a means of learning what is going on with other family members, and develop respect for each other. Parents can use the opportunity to role model table manners and to teach children how to listen to and respect each other.

Conversations should be open and honest, while refraining from discussions that would cause embarrassment for family members, thus modeling respectful communication for children. Having adults listen to and value children’s dinnertime conversation can help children build self-esteem and trust.

To prevent family dinners from becoming a burden at the end of a long day for one family member, family members can share the tasks of preparing, serving, and cleaning up meals. Even the preparation and cleanup phases of the meal can be a time of conversation between family members. Make sure the tasks assigned are age-appropriate for children.

For example, preschool children can carry lightweight items such as napkins and non-breakable dishware and utensils to the table. Tweens can set and clear the table independently and help with meal preparation. Teenagers can help plan family meals, grocery shop, and follow recipes without adult supervision. By sharing the workload, children learn life skills and responsibility.

Family meals can have a powerful influence on individual and family health. While there will always be scheduling conflicts, families can still make family mealtime a priority. Families that are not currently eating together can start small by increasing the number of family meals by one meal per week.

When family members sit down at the dinner table, they learn about each other, tend to have lower stress and better communication. Getting the children involved in meal preparation and planning helps them have a sense of belonging, leading to greater self-esteem and learning valuable life skills. Remember, meals do not have to be elaborate to be healthy and enjoyable.

For family meal ideas, information, and recipes, visit the following websites:

Mississippi State University Extension: https://extension.msstate.edu/

U. S. Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: https://www.eatright.org/

The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/

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