Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
What’s the big deal with family meals?
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
September is Family Meals Month, designed to promote the benefits of eating together and to provide encouragement and support for us to achieve the goal of eating together.
What’s the big deal with family meals? Why celebrate eating together? What difference does it make?
In the picture, you can see the largest family meal gathering in our family when we came together (pre-COVID) to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday at Christmas in 2019. What is the largest gathering for a meal you’ve celebrated? Was it a family reunion, a wedding, a holiday, or a milestone birthday like this?
What is your experience with family meals?
Were family meals the norm for your family, or the exception? Growing up I didn’t give family meals much thought. They just were. Three times a day. When I started my own family, we had family meals as well. In my mind, that’s what families did.
Then, as an early intervention nutrition specialist, I started making home visits and investigating solutions to child feeding challenges. I discovered that many families did not come together for family meals and many didn’t even have a table for eating together. I wondered… did eating together make a difference?
Asking that question led me to study the impact of family meals for more than two decades. I learned they are much more than the food consumed. I learned making family meals happen makes a difference, a big difference.
Now more than ever, I’m convinced that making time for family meals reaps many benefits. Research has found that more frequent family meals are significantly associated with improved diets, healthier weights, greater family cohesiveness, improved academic performance, and less risk-taking behaviors, to name a few. (1)
But that’s not the only way to answer…
What’s the big deal with family meals?
Family meals make a difference because they provide a means for us to not only satisfy our hunger but to thrive. I suggest four ways family meals help us thrive:
Meals mark time
We thrive on routine. Meals provide structure to our days – breakfast, lunch, dinner. A meal routine provides security to children and adults alike. It builds trust and a healthier relationship with food and eating.
Creating a meal routine and eating together was a key solution to the feeding issues in the families I worked with as an early intervention nutrition specialist. In fact, the difference family meals made was nothing short of amazing. Meals are more than a daily routine; they mark holidays and celebrations throughout the year. Make time for meals.
Meals nourish more
We thrive on more than food. Yes, we need nutrients. But we also benefit from the conversations we share around the table. We exchange ideas, we solve problems - we nourish our brains. We laugh, we cry, we express affection - we nourish our spirits.
I venture that outside of formal school I have learned more around a table sharing meals with others than any other single place. I’ve learned language, manners, customs, cuisine, jokes, stories, trivia, and truths.
I’ve learned that toddlers throw food on the floor and young children have trouble sitting still. I’ve learned that fixing the meal often takes longer than eating it, but the time spent eating it together is time well spent.
Meals make memories
We thrive on traditions. What are your memories of your grandparents or great-grandparents, if you were fortunate to have been alive at the same time? Do those memories include family meals? It is likely they do.
Meals bring families together across generations and build treasured traditions. Families pass down recipes from generation to generation, honoring their family’s heritage and culture. Special foods and traditions represent special events and celebrations.
For a decade, it was our family’s tradition to come together every week at University Place in West Lafayette, where my mother and mother-in-law lived, and enjoy dinner together in the big dining room.
When my grandchildren remember their great-grandmothers years from now, I hope they remember Monday nights around a table with plenty of good food, conversation, and lots of love.
Meals connect people
We thrive on connection. This is the number one reason people give for having family meals – to spend time together and build closeness. Sharing meals has been considered an opportunity for social interaction from the beginning of recorded history.
In all cultures throughout the world, food and eating connect people. The word companion means “with bread” in Latin. Companions eat together.
If we’ve learned one thing from the pandemic, it’s our need for human connection. Read on…
Why is eating together more important than ever?
Even before the pandemic hit, our country was considered in the midst of a “loneliness epidemic.” The pandemic accentuated the problem by forcing everyone to limit social contact. Consider these statistics:
More than one-fourth of all American households consist of people living alone. (2)
Since the onset of the pandemic, 36% of all Americans feel “serious loneliness” compared to 25% prior to the pandemic. (3)
In a survey of 1,008 people aged 18–35, 80% of participants reported “significant depressive symptoms” during the pandemic. (4)
Loneliness and living alone increase the risk of premature death by 26% and 32% respectively. (5)
46% of eating occasions are spent alone. (6)
Having strong human connections increases longevity by 50%. (7)
A silver lining of the pandemic has been a heightened awareness of the impact of loneliness. We all felt the impact of social isolation and in turn loneliness to greater and lesser degrees. We realized that lives were shortened by not only a deadly virus but by the isolation resulting from efforts to protect ourselves from getting it. Awareness can lead to action.
We recognized that if isolation and loneliness make us less healthy and shorten our lives, we need to find ways to form and maintain stronger human connections. For families sheltering in place, coming together for family meals was potentially a new or renewed habit during the pandemic. We collectively affirmed that eating together can help overcome loneliness and social isolation and may in turn help increase longevity.
Sharing meals isn’t the only way to build stronger human connections, but it can be an important way, in large part due to its potential for consistency. How can we make it a reality when so many people think…
Aren’t family meals unrealistic?
Who needs something else to complicate their lives? No one. Who needs something else to enrich their lives? Everyone. That “something” can be eating with others. Although most people agree on the benefits of eating together, a common belief is that getting people together for a shared meal is too complicated. Not true.
Let’s face it. One of the main barriers to family meals is the unrealistic expectation that they require perfect attendance, complicated recipes, all five food groups, the “good” dishes, and a family resembling a Norman Rockwell painting.
For this reason, our Promoting Family Meals working group at Purdue University, way back in 2006, created this definition:
“A “family meal” is when the people you live with come together to eat and talk. It can include everyone or it can be just you and your child. Family meals don’t have to be fancy, and they can be eaten at home or away. They are best when you can talk and listen to each other away from the noise of the television.”
If we were writing that definition today, the last sentence would read… “They are best when you can talk and listen to each other without the distraction of phones or the TV.”
We created a handout, titled “Let’s Talk About Mealtime,” along with other resources for teaching about family meals in community settings.
Practical Goals for Family Meals
In addition to highlighting the benefits of family meals, this handout provides a tool for setting practical goals to:
Find time for family meals
Find good places to eat together
Eat easy, healthy, and tasty meals
Focus on our family, not the TV
Enjoy family time together
When we created the goal-setting portion of the handout, we utilized the Stages of Change behavior change model to develop four potential action steps for each goal. The first suggested action step was designed for the person just contemplating the desired behavior. The second was for the person preparing to take action. The third was for the person actively engaged but needing ideas to make it easier or more effective. The fourth and final suggestion was for the person needing to make the action a consistent habit or to try a new approach.
Here’s what this looked like for the goal to “Focus on our family, not the TV”:
Think of why it’s good to eat away from the TV and talk together.
Pick ____ meals to eat away from the TV this week.
Try conversation starters to get your family talking.
Turn off the TV during meals ____ times this week.
As mentioned earlier, add the phrase “phones or electronic devices” to “the TV” in the statements above.
This step-wise approach works well for taking action on meeting goals. All too often we jump right to the highest level and fail. By working through the stages and beginning with answering the “why this action is important” question before proceeding, you will be set up for success.
The barriers are not insurmountable – with a little planning and preparation. Making eating together a priority and being intentional is the first step. Who could you share a meal with? Are you wondering…
Is eating together only for families?
Certainly eating with one’s family is key to family well-being, but what if you live alone and your family lives miles away… does that mean “family meals” are not for you? No. Think “shared meals” instead of “family meals.” Eating with others benefits more than just families.
Eating with others is easier than you might think. And it is definitely worth the effort. At the most basic level, find daily opportunities to come together with others to eat (taking into account safety guidelines during the pandemic):
If you share a residence, eat at the same time and place, whether or not you eat the same food.
When you take a meal break at work, invite a coworker to join you even if it means sitting together at one of your desks with your sack lunches from home.
When you go to a restaurant solo, pick one with a counter and sit next to someone who is willing to converse.
How hard is that? In addition to nourishing your hungry body, you have taken a break from working, or scrolling social media, or worrying – to focusing on another person, catching up, having a laugh, making plans, and getting rejuvenated.
How can you be successful at sharing meals?
How can you accomplish shared meals without stress? I suggest four simple steps that answer who, when, where, and what:
Who? Determine who to gather around the table. Shared meals are for more than just families. Gather your friends, gather your coworkers, gather your neighbors, gather the members of your study group. Who could benefit from sharing a meal together? Everyone!
When? Determine a date and time. What gets scheduled gets done. If the date is in the future, send a “save-the-date” or calendar invite. Can’t figure out what works best for everyone? Send out a “Doodle” poll. Consider setting a regular “date” to come together (every second Sunday or fourth Wednesday), or at least pick the next date when one shared meal is ending. Coming together for shared meals on a regular basis builds a habit that will be anticipated and treasured. Relationships are nurtured over time. Shared meals are an ideal place to form and develop meaningful relationships.
Where? Select a location. Hosting doesn’t necessarily mean having guests in your home. Eating out counts. Meeting in a common location like a meeting room in your apartment complex, or at a neighborhood center, a park, the building of a faith community, or a restaurant are all potential locations. Vary the location or establish one place that feels just right.
What? If not eating out, share the food preparation. Hosting doesn’t necessarily mean creating a gourmet meal solo. Host a potluck and have everyone bring a dish to pass. Don’t overcomplicate the food. Guests can even be asked to bring their own table service. Keep it simple and easily replicated by others. The food is not the center of attention, the people are. Set aside your phones and focus on one another. Have deep conversations, have fun, and make lasting memories.
Many of the resources available (see the links below) for promoting family meals and eating together are focused on ways to simplify their preparation and increase the likelihood of success. By making eating together a priority, planning ahead, sharing in the preparation, and keeping it uncomplicated, eating together can be a reality enjoyed by all.
The month of September is Family Meals Month and the fourth Monday in September is Family Day. These initiatives build awareness of the benefits of sharing meals and provide practical solutions to the most common barriers to eating together.
If you’re looking for more ideas, check out these resources:
I have lots of free resources for promoting family meals!
Family Meals Month: https://www.fmi.org/family-meals-movement CASA’s Family Day: https://www.casafamilyday.org/ The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/
These initiatives build awareness of the benefits of sharing meals and provide practical solutions to the most common barriers to eating together. Keep it simple. Just make it happen!
“There is something profoundly satisfying about sharing a meal. Eating together, breaking bread together, is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences.” ~ Barbara Coloroso
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