Whether you’re munching on organic grain bowls or ketchup-drenched, defrosted, dinosaur-shaped nuggets, sharing a screen-free family dinner nourishes kids in life-changing ways. And wash away your guilt, working parents: If you can’t get home for mac and cheese at 5:30 p.m., don’t sweat it. Aiming to eat together at least three times a week—including breakfast and weekend brunch—is a worthy goal. When it comes to raising healthy kids, body and soul, prioritizing frequent family meals counts most.
It lowers the risk of substance abuse
Family dinners not only lower the risk of depression in kids, they also guard against the impulse to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. That’s because key communication takes place at these end-of-day parent-child debriefs. According to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (5 to 7 per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than 3 per week) are more than twice as likely to say that they expect to try drugs in the future.” Teens who seldom eat with their parents are almost twice as likely to have used alcohol, and 1.5 times likelier to have used marijuana. “The magic that happens over family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the communication and conversations around it,” explains the center’s marketing director Kathleen Ferrigno. “Of course there is no iron-clad guarantee that your kids will grow up drug-free, but knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better the odds are that you will raise a healthy kid.”
It leads to better academic performance
Writes Harvard Medical School psychology professor and author of Home for Dinner Anne Fishel: “Researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to...Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.” And as kids grow up, the intellectual benefits explode. “For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.”
It decreases obesity and eating disorders
Family dinners provide opportunities for parents to model—and regulate for their kids—healthy eating habits. According to a study led by eating disorder expert Dr. Jess Haines, “Compared to those who ate family dinner ‘never or some days,’ female adolescents who ate family dinner at least most days were less likely to initiate purging, binge eating, and frequent dieting.” An unrelated study conducted by University of Minnesota Family Social Science professor Dr. William J. Doherty found Americans (parents and kids) are significantly less overweight if they share family meals more frequently, and have fewer distractions at the table (like tech). Kids who eat dinner with their families often also eat healthier (more fruits and vegetables; less soda and fried foods), according to a study by Harvard Medical School’s Obesity Prevention Program. Family meals allow for both "discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods," that study’s director, Dr. Matthew W. Gillman, told CNN.
It increases self-esteem and resilience
According to psychology researchers at Emory University, children who have frequent family dinners “know more about their family history and tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity.” When families who are close don’t sugarcoat life’s hardships (like the death of a relative or pet) their children exhibit “higher self-esteem and sense of control.” The communal table is where the stories of who we are, and who we come from, get passed down. According to Marshall Duke, a co-director of the study, which analyzed 120 hours of recorded family dinner conversations, "As the family talks about things, I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal. How bad is this? How good is this? Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don't define the family history.”