In this time of warp-speed and multi-layered scheduling for every member of the family, meals eaten together around a single table seem quaint and very Leave It To Beaver. But numerous scientific studies have revealed the old-time custom to be worth reviving. This study, one of the first of its kind to examine family meals and the eating habits of middle-schoolers, adds to the list of benefits. The researchers found that adolescents who participated in five or more family meals per week had healthier diets and meal patterns five years later, compared to kids who ate with their clan less often. The hope is that this effect remains at 25 years out, and beyond.
Data for this study was drawn from Project EAT, a large study overseen by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. This study included 303 boys and 374 girls who completed surveys when they were around age 13, and again around age 17. The study showed that regular family meals declined over time: 60 percent of the kids had them at early adolescence, while just 30 percent had them five years later. But the adolescents who ate with their families at both times had healthier eating patterns overall. They ate breakfast more frequently; ate more vegetables, calcium-rich foods, dietary fiber; and got more nutrients including calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc.
What it Means:
Anything that improves kids’ eating habits is important: According to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, adolescent intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich food are lower than what’s recommended. Beyond that, studies show that eating patterns established during adolescence often track into adulthood. With rates of obesity and its life-threatening consequences continuing to rise, establishing healthful eating patterns early is key not only to kids’ health, but to their survival as adults.
Here’s what you can do to gather your family around the dinner table:
1. Make a formal plan
Don’t let family dinners be ad hoc events that nobody makes time for. Check everyone’s schedules, mark the calendar, and be clear that attendance is required. That goes for the adults in the family, too; you’ll have to set an example if you want everyone to be on board.
2. Clear the deck
In most families, the kitchen tabletop accumulates reams of paper—incoming mail, homework, bills—over the course of an average day (or week, or month, or however long it’s been since the table was actually used for eating). Accumulate clutter elsewhere—invest in an extra desk or filing cabinet, if needed—or make a point to remove the detritus on a daily basis. When people see there’s actually a table under there, the goal of sitting down for dinner suddenly seems more realistic.
3. Cut your prep time
If time is tight, bring home precut, frozen, canned, or microwave-in-the-bag vegetables for fast food that’s also healthful. Buy frozen ravioli and low-fat spaghetti sauce, and serve it with a precut salad. Or use a slow cooker; stock it before you leave for work, and when you get home the meal will be ready.
4. Make it a group effort
Enlist your kids to help you set the table, prepare the food, serve it, then straighten up. Have them research and suggest recipes to try (the Rodale Recipe Finder is a good place to start). Involving them in the process means lighter work for you, of course, but it also gives them some ownership over (and responsibility for) the family ritual.
5. Delete distractions
The point isn’t simply to control the food your adolescent takes in, it’s also to stress the importance of eating mindfully (or, with full attention to what you put in your body). To that end, establish a communication blackout (except for conversation). No TV, no cell phones, no texting, no handhelds of any kind (and that goes for you as well as them, of course).