The Science Behind Family Dinners

Family and friends gathering together at home for eating dinner
Photo by zurijeta on

When I was a kid, having nightly dinner with the family was one of the non-negotiable aspects of living at home. I did the same when my own children were young and living at home (at least for as long as I could, given after-school activities and lessons). Now, you might be hard-pressed to find a family on your street that actually has dinner together more than a couple times per week.

You can probably guess the reasons. The family as a unit has changed. The way, place, and time commitment of our work is different. We have nearly nonstop connectedness due to our tech and social media. And don’t forget the increasing busy-ness of life in general. It seems we all have more demands on our time and attention than we used to. I’m certainly not judging those that have difficulty making family dinners happen. I know how hard it can be to get a meal on the table while also coordinating everyone’s schedules, and when I was a single parent it all seemed even more difficult. Here’s the thing, though: research shows there are some benefits to sitting down at a meal together—for both children and adults. These might convince you that making the effort to have family meals together will pay off for everyone.

The setting and the company are key.

Research indicates that two primary influences on a child’s food intake are the presence of others and the location of the meal. Most studies show that parents exert a beneficial influence on the consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy products, as well as lower amounts of sugary drinks. However, excessive control and food-related pressure can backfire, causing less healthful eating in children—and frankly, unpleasant mealtimes for all involved. Mixed impacts on healthy food consumption have been found when children eat with peers or friends. And where the meal happens, whether at a restaurant, at home, school, or at a friend’s home, can all impact a child’s food intake.

As you might suspect, restaurant meals tend to be the least healthy, being higher in sweets, sugary beverages, and snack-type foods. The impact of school meals on child nutritional status and health is an ongoing subject of research and debate. One recent meta-analysis using data from studies conducted worldwide indicates that school meals positively impact fruit consumption, barely improve vegetable consumption, and show no effects on water intake. Eating at a relative’s or friend’s house at least once a week is associated with poorer diet quality for children. All in all, studies do tend to show that eating with family has a positive nutritional impact on a child’s or teenager’s diet.

Does it have to be dinner?

So eating with family at home is important, but do these findings apply to all meals eaten at home, or is there something “magical” about dinner? A study done with families in Switzerland found no association between a child’s consumption of healthy foods and eating breakfast at home with family members, while the lunch meal did increase the consumption of vegetables, dairy products, and eggs. This study also compared weekday eating and weekend eating.

The upshot? Eating together at home on the weekend, especially dinner, seemed to result in more healthy meals and a lower intake of sweets and sweet drinks. Another recent study linked family dinners with produce consumption in preschool-aged children. Those preschoolers who shared less than three evening meals with family were more likely to have low fruit and vegetable consumption. Among teens, eating family meals—particularly dinner—is not only associated with better nutrition, but also lower prevalence of eating disorders, less substance abuse, and improved academic outcomes.

This is not to say that eating breakfast or lunch together as a family isn’t as impactful, it may just mean that there is a lack of data on these meals in particular. Lunch for children is often eaten at school, which only leaves weekends to study. And although breakfast is a great time to get children started with healthy food intake for the day and many children do eat breakfast with their families, people (even children) tend to have certain breakfast food habits, or meals that they eat over and over again out of habit or convenience. That makes it more difficult to see a wider incorporation of foods when studying family breakfasts.

It’s not just about nutrition.

One of the most wonderful things about family meals is that they bring so many good things that have nothing to do with the food intake or nutrition at all. Obviously, just having time together to break bread and share conversations (and cook together) is important and beneficial, but there are many other great things that can happen over the dinner table. I’m sure you can think of several, but here are a few to consider:

  • Modeling and practice of table manners
  • Sharing happenings of the day
  • Teaching table setting and clean-up skills
  • Development of conversational skills
  • Carrying on family traditions
  • Fostering unity and family identity
  • Opportunity for parents to observe moods, demeanor of kids/teens
  • Chance to transmit family values
  • Improved language acquisition and skills
  • Strengthen ethnic heritage
  • Contributes structure to a child’s day
  • Create family memories
  • Provides teens with a time to be themselves, away from social pressures

Parents don’t have to feel compelled to have a family dinner every night—but a goal of more nights with family dinner than without it each week might be a goal to strive for. Planning the week’s schedule together the weekend prior, noting which nights will be family dinner nights (and perhaps even doing a little menu-planning together) could become part of your weekend routine and a nice time to connect as a group.