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How family meals offer mental and physical health benefits

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September is National Family Meals Month, a movement started by the Food Marketing Institute Foundation in September 2015. Now with 35 years of global research on the topic, we know that family meals offer mental and physical health benefits and more.

With summer travel winding down and back-to-school routines established, September is an opportune time to focus on family meals. To start, family meals create togetherness and foster relationships and communication. Some of the mental and social benefits of eating together include improved performance at school and at work, improved cognition and lower risk of depression and eating disorders. Youth who eat dinner with their parents are less likely to use substances. They are also at lower risk for teen pregnancy, bullying, suicide and violence.

Furthermore, engaging in regular family meals helps children build confidence, self-esteem and resilience while promoting better communication skills. Mealtime conversations help build children’s vocabulary and literacy skills, helping them to score better on academic achievement tests.

Families who eat together also seem to benefit from better nutritional health. A 2020 study published in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that family meals increase fruit and vegetable consumption in both kids and adults. Overall, it appears that family meals are protective against weight concerns over time and help promote a positive body image in youth.

The family mealtime environment has the opportunity to provide youth with meal structure, parental modeling of healthy eating habits, socialization and familiarization with a variety of foods. The factors have the potential to positively impact children’s eating behaviors.

While the COVID-19 pandemic led to an uptick in the frequency of family meals, overall family meals have been declining over the past 20 years. Reasons for this decline are numerous, but include the fact that there are more single-generation households, parents and caregivers are working longer hours outside the home, grocery prices are inflated and there is a downward trend in cooking. Plus, many active families are juggling hectic school, work and activity schedules making sitting down together at mealtime particularly challenging.

However, there is good news. We can benefit from family meals any time of day. So consider breakfast, lunch or dinner an opportunity to eat together. Plus, families don’t need to eat together daily in order to reap the benefits of family meals. According to the American College of Pediatricians, kids and teens experience certain health and nutrition benefits from sharing a family meal three or more times per week.

Here are some strategies to prioritize family meals in your home:

Plan ahead and schedule family meals when everyone can be available. However, just two people eating together can absolutely still count as a family meal.

Make family meals more valuable by avoiding the use of cell phones and other screens while eating.

Allow kids and teens to help plan and prepare meals for even greater participation.

Get creative. Consider if eating together at breakfast or on weekends could help increase the frequency of family meals.

Be flexible. While home-cooked meals are great, family meals can take place in restaurants, parks, the beach or even in the office break room.

Try a weekly themed dinner like “Taco Tuesday,” “Breakfast for Dinner” or “Make Your Own Pizza” for a fun twist on family dinner.

Keep conversation light and positive and use family meal time as an upbeat time to connect and recharge together.

Set realistic and achievable goals. If daily family meals are not possible, focus on quality over quantity.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at [email protected].

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