Why Family Dinners Matter: The Science of Eating Together

FAMILY: Choreograph / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most families find it difficult to get everyone together at the dinner table on a regular basis. We’re all so busy with after-school activities, late meetings at work and long commutes; it really is too bad. Researchers have learned that eating dinner as a family is extremely important to kids’ physical, mental and emotional health. As Dr. Anne Fishel, professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on the benefits of family dinners, says: “Sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”

Healthier Eating

Kids whose families have regular dinners together are much healthier than those who don’t. They eat more fruits and vegetables
and fewer fried foods and soft drinks. They eat a wider variety of foods, and they continue to do so once they become adults. They’re also less likely to become obese. Researchers believe that’s because homemade meals are healthier than those in restaurants. We eat smaller portions at a slower pace and spend more time talking with one another.

Increased Vocabulary

Dining with the family affects kids’ minds as well as their bodies. Researchers have discovered that dinnertime conversations increase young kids’ vocabularies much more than being read to out loud. So, if you have a choice between coming home early for a family dinner or reading your kids a bedtime story, choose the dinner over the bedtime story. Kids who have a large vocabulary learn to read earlier and more easily than those with a more limited vocabulary. Researchers think that’s because kids constantly hear parents use new words during conversation. 

Higher Grades

These intellectual benefits carry over into academic achievement. Researchers have discovered that how well kids do in school is determined more by how often they participate in family dinners than by whether they do their homework consistently. Kids who dine regularly with their families are twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who only do so rarely.

Fewer Risky Behaviors

Having family dinners is also good for kids’ emotional health. When they dine with their families, they’re much less likely to suffer from eating disorders, abuse alcohol or drugs or experience stress and depression. Researchers believe that’s because parents who spend time with their kids at the dinner table are more in touch with their kids’ emotional well-being and can offer advice and support when needed. As a result, these kids also have higher self-
esteem and trust others more.

Stronger Family Bonds

Finally, researchers have learned what we all probably know already: eating dinner together enhances family bonds. Kids whose families have regular dinners are much more likely to have good relationships with their parents and siblings. Kids say that talking, catching up and just spending quality family time are much more important to them than what’s on the menu. Simply put, eating dinner together creates a strong sense of togetherness and feelings of belonging to a family. Dr. Fishel puts it well: “Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.”

Happy Dinner!

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.


Bonding time

By Heather M. Ross

While sitting together and sharing a meal is often seen as the quintessential family experience, it’s not always possible for all types of families. But that doesn’t mean your family can’t still experience the benefits of family bonding. 

An easy ways to do this is to create a ritual or tradition – like Taco Tuesdays. Repetition can be just as important as novelty when it comes to anticipation and excitement. Traditions establish a time when everyone can expect to be together; they keep their schedules built around that family time. 

Another way to fuel family closeness is to stay connected through small acts. A note in their lunch, an encouraging high five or sending your teen a silly text or meme are all small actions that can have a big impact on your family’s health. 

These suggestions come from Katharine D’Amora, a Pennsylvania psychologist and mother of three who works with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), serving children and families in education, community mental health and child welfare. For more family support resources, such as parenting education and support, visit DHS’s website at phila.gov/departments/department-of-human-services/for-families.