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Four Reasons Why Family Meals Matter

Family meals offer a number of important health and wellness benefits to everyone at the table, but especially to kids.

Presented by April 21, 2016

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The tradition of eating a home cooked dinner together, once a staple of family life, began to disappear from dining room tables across America sometime within the last thirty or forty years. This vanishing act sprang from a number of societal changes, from the increase in dual income and single parent households, to the encroachment of kids’ and parents’ activities on the dinner hour.

More recently, some families have begun to reclaim the dinner hour. It’s a move in the right direction.Here are four reasons to sit down and share meals with your family as often as possible:

  1. Kids who eat with their families perform better academically. For young children, it turns out that dinner table conversation is a great vocabulary booster; it even trumps reading aloud to them. For example, children who routinely eat family meals might hear over 1,000 “rare words” - words outside the 3,000 common words used in the English language - compared to just a few hundred encountered while reading most books. The list of academic benefits grows as a child develops, resulting in better test scores and higher grades - even through their teen years.
  1. Home-cooked meals are better for you. The meal you prepare at home will almost certainly be healthier than the one you buy at a restaurant or the grab-and-go case. The hard truth about feeding prepared and convenience foods to kids – and adults, for that matter – is that they tend to be higher in salt and processed sugar, but lower in vitamins and minerals, healthy fats and other nutrients than fresh foods prepared at home. In addition, kids who eat at home are more likely to sample – and enjoy – new fruits and vegetables and are twice as likely than their peers who don’t eat family meals to get enough of these key foods in their diets.
  1. Family meals build healthier habits. Kids who eat with their families are less likely to abuse alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families less regularly. As we detailed in one of our blog posts on this topic, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) has found that "teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week." The same goes for other risky and unhealthy behaviors that are often thought of as “inevitable” in adolescence.
  1. Family meals provide an early warning system. Parents who share family meals with their children are more likely to know when something is not going well in their child’s life and be in a position to intervene earlier. The issues that bubble up during family meal interactions run the gamut of childhood travails, from struggles with schoolwork, to difficulty navigating friendships, to a deteriorating relationship with food. The latter could include overeating, food restriction, or the avoidance of entire food groups, all of which can be early indicators of a possible eating disorder.

When it comes to eating disorders, it’s particularly important to note that we are still not sure what causes them or even how to prevent them. What we do know is the importance of earlier detection - through basic measures such as regular family meals - that greatly improve prognosis and treatment outcome. Sharing meals with your children means you have a consistent view of how their eating habits are evolving or changing, making these meals the perfect venue to keep track of your kids’ developing relationship with food. 

If you’ve noticed changes in how your child eats, trust your gut and seek the help of a professional with experience in pediatric eating disorders as soon as possible. For more information about how to identify and treat a childhood eating disorder, please visit Kartini Clinic online at www.kartiniclinic.com.