By Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.
Is today’s family meal on its way out? What used to be an acceptable practice – sharing a meal together at the end of the work day or school day has been officially replaced with the fast food drive thru. The demise of the family meal has led to a variety of social, intellectual and behavioral consequences. Unfortunately, these effects are seen in all cultural and socioeconomic groups. According to the latest research on the topic, these effects range from a decrease in dietary quality of foods eaten by our children, to a decrease in academic performance and possibly an increase in risk taking behaviors (1 – 7).
The Family Ritual
The sharing of food at mealtime has been a symbol of family unity, love and the connections and communications. Because of the social changes that have occurred in the family such as maternal employment, single parenthood, and the stress due to everyone’s hectic schedules trying to balance work, family and children’s activities, the ritual of the family meal is slowly disappearing.
Although some may view the family meal as an outdated ritual of the past, surveys have indicated that more than 80% of parents believe the family meal is extremely important. In addition, a national survey revealed that adolescents also viewed the family meal as important. In fact, this survey revealed that 79% of the adolescents cited eating dinner at home as one of the top rated activities that they like to do with their parents (1).
Why Are Family Meals Important?
Research has suggested the family meal has a positive impact on the dietary quality of the food ingested, language acquisition and academic performance and can help reduce risk-taking behaviors. In addition, family meals can facilitate family interaction, family communication and a sense of unity.
A number of studies have found a positive association between frequency of eating family dinner and dietary quality in older children and adolescents (3, 6, 7). In addition, the frequency of eating meals together as a family has been associated with greater intakes of fruits and vegetables, less fried food and soft drinks, and higher intakes of several nutrients which include calcium, iron, vitamins, fiber and less saturated and trans fat intakes (3,6). Videon and Manning reported among adolescents, parental presence at the evening meal was associated with a lower risk of poor consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy foods as well as the likelihood of skipping breakfast (7).
Research has shown a correlation between frequent family dinners and reduced risk that a teen will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs. The research revealed teens who have dinner with their families two night a week or less are at least twice the risk of substance abuse as teens who have frequent family dinners (1.54 vs. 0.78) (4).
What’s Really Happening in the Home Front?
Studies have shown that about 1/3 of children and adolescents from age 9 – 18 years old eat dinner with their family every day (2, 3). Sixty-one percent of teens have dinner with their family at least 5 times per week (4). Almost ¼ to 1/3 (22-32%) of children and adolescents (9 – 17 years old) report eating dinner together with their family rarely or only a few days each week (2, 3).
The older the child gets there is steady decline in the amount of family meals eaten. According to Neumark-Sztainer et al, students in middle school and junior higher school eat more family meals together (mean 5.7) than students in high school (mean 3.5) (2).
Can Family Meals Help Prevent Obesity?
As obesity increases in our children, efforts are underway to look at all possible efforts to help prevent obesity. The family meal can offer the child with a planned time to eat decreasing the grazing on nutrient poor foods that can lead to a higher calorie intake. In addition, the family meal can promote an improved intake of nutrient-dense foods. Parents can role model healthy eating behaviors as well as healthy relationships with food. The family meal should be just that – a meal where the family focuses on the family and eating – not what’s on television. By focusing on the meal, hunger and satiety cues can be recognized. In addition the family meal can foster the sense of belonging.
Instituting the Family Meal is Not Easy in Today’s World
It’s not easy to put a quality family meal on the table when you are working, working out and your family is actively involved in after school activities as well. However, armed with a microwave and/or a crockpot, and a little bit of planning, a family meal can be a happening that doesn’t require hours in the kitchen. If you are new to crockpot cooking, there are a number of really good cookbooks available at the local bookstore for example, Better Homes and Garden Simple Slow Cooker Recipes, Better Homes and Garden Low-Carb Slow Cooker Recipes and Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook (does not contain the nutritional information on recipes, however).
Making the Family Meal a Priority:
Planning: Plan meals ahead of time. Start by planning a weekly dinner menu. Keep an inventory of quick-to-fix foods in your kitchen such as brown rice, pasta, bread, frozen fruits and vegetables and potatoes.
Shopping: When time is more precious than money, buy ingredients that are already prepared such as pre-washed salad vegetables, chicken breast in pieces for stir fry, and pre-shredded cheeses to be used as toppings. Shop at a familiar store so you can make it through faster or shop online (www.ValuMarkets.com) and pick-up the groceries on the way home from work.
Cooking: Focus on preparing only one meal per day and keep the other meals simple. Make sure you have on hand grab-and-go foods such as yogurt, fruit, bagels, peanut butter, sandwich fixings, soups, string cheese, nuts like almonds for those “unplanned meals.” Spend most of your time in one entrée per meal and then use simple accompaniments such as frozen vegetables, bread, and fresh fruit drizzled with yogurt for dessert.
Cleaning: To save on clean-up time, limit the number of bowls, pans and serving dishes. Mix, cook, and serve in the same dish whenever possible. You can forego serving bowls and serve directly onto dinner plates for quicker clean-up. Plus, make clean-up a family affair.
(1). Zollo P. Getting Wiser to Teens: More Insights into Marketing to Teenagers. Ithaca,NY New Strategist Publication, 2004.
(2). Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Ackard D, et al. Family meals among adolescents: Findings from a pilot study. J Nutr Educ 2000; 32:335-40.
(3). Gillman MW, Rifas-Shirman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Family Med 2000; 9:235 – 40.
(4). NationalCenteron Addiction and Substance Abuse. The importance of family dinners. September 2003,Columbia University,New York.
(5). Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Ackard D, et al. The “family meal”: Views of adolescents. J Nutr Educ 2000; 32:329 – 34.
(6). Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M, et al. Family meal patterns; Association with sociodemographic characteristics and improved dietary intake among adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc 2003; 103; 317-22.
(7). Videon TM, and Manning CK. Influences on adolescent eating patterns; The importance of family meals. Journal of Adolescent Health 2003; 32:365 – 373.
Image from: www.starvingartist.com
Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N., is a registered dietitian with a Master’s Degree in clinical nutrition. The former publisher of Kentuckiana HealthFitness Magazine, Kentuckiana Healthy Woman magazine and radio show host of Health News You Can Use, Barbara has over 30 years of experience in promoting healthy lifestyles to consumers. Barbara worked as Nutrition Consultant to the Navy SEALs (8 years) and the University of Louisville Athletic Department (10 years). Barbara has private practice, DayByDay Nutrition, www.DayByDayNutrition.com, where she counsels clients on weight loss, cholesterol management, performance nutrition and an array of other medical issues. Visit Barbara’s new website which is an on-line health & wellness magazine, www.KentuckianaHEALTHWellness.com. Barbara writes nutrition and health columns for www.LiveStrong.com as well as a weekly nutrition column for the Southeast Outlook. She also designs and presents employee wellness programs to small and large businesses. Barbara is a runner, cyclist, hiker and a mother and grandmother to 12 grandchildren.