Embrace Family Mealtimes For These Health Benefits
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MOST parents already know that family mealtimes are great for the bodies, the brains and the mental health of children. More than two decades of studies reveal that kids who eat with their families do better in school and have bigger vocabularies. They also have lower rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as well as healthier diets and better cardiovascular health.

But what may come as unexpected news to parents is that these same shared meals are also good for adults. Across the life span, from young parents eating with toddlers to parents with school-age kids and elderly adults eating with younger generations, shared meals are associated with healthier eating and better mood.


For adults, both with and without children, there are numerous health benefits to eating with others. 

On the flip side, researchers have found that eating alone is associated with an increased likelihood of skipping meals and the downstream effects – lower intakes of nutrients, reduced energy and poorer nutritional health.

Regardless of parental status, adults who eat with others tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food than those who eat alone. Even when a home cook isn’t particularly focused on healthy cooking, home-cooked meals lower the odds that adults will be obese. Large portion sizes, the embrace of fried foods and a heavy hand with oil are more common at restaurants than in a home kitchen.

In addition to the benefits of dining with others, there are further boosts for adults who eat with their children – and they pertain equally to mothers and fathers. When kids are present at mealtime, parents may eat more healthily, perhaps to model good behavior and provide the best nourishment they can to their kids. When there is plenty of conversation with kids chiming in, the pace of eating slows down, allowing diners’ brains to register fullness and signal that it’s time to stop eating.

For kids, eating more family meals is associated with lower rates of obesity. The act of eating with others does not correlate with reduced weight gain in adults, though – unless their dining companions include children. Parents who dine with their kids also tend to report less dieting and binge-eating behavior. Parents may dial back some of these destructive behaviors when they know their kids are watching and ready to imitate.

It may seem counterintuitive that a process that demands so much time and resources – the energy to plan the meal, shop for it, prepare it, serve it and clean up after – could also lead to boosts in mental health. Much more obvious is how kids would benefit from their parents’ demonstrating their love and care by providing nightly dinners.

But researchers have found that having frequent family meals is associated with better mental health for both mothers and fathers, despite mothers’ carrying more of the burden of meal prep. Compared with parents who rarely ate family meals, parents who regularly dined with their kids reported higher levels of family functioning, greater self-esteem and lower levels of depressive symptoms and stress.

And mental health benefits don’t depend on slow-cooked meat or organic vegetables. Since it’s the atmosphere at the dinner table that contributes most significantly to emotional well-being, takeout or prepared food eaten at home will work nicely too!

Anne Fishel is associate clinical professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, Harvard University. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished under the Creative Commons Licence.