family meals

The Family Table – Do Family Meals Make For Better Health?

Executive Summary

See that picture up there? That’s our family dinner table. Mrs. H and I bought it as newlyweds in Laguna Beach California. Our kids grew up eating at that table and when our oldest went out on his own, he took it with him. Last week he moved to a new apartment and didn’t need it anymore. Mrs. H and I took it back. It represents something important to us.

We’re often told that the family that eats together, stays together. These days that’s easier said than done. What damage might you be doing if you forgo family meals? This post examines the subject.

Family Meals – Full Disclosure

When I was a kid, my family ate together. But by the time I was around ten, things changed. I was the baby of the family, still am, and my older siblings had five years on me. So, by the time I was ten, they were in their mid-teens and had important things to do at night such as combing their hair. They became scarce.

Meanwhile, both of my parents worked which was not the norm in those days. My mother was in sales and that meant she worked odd hours.

Finally, I was a pretty independent kid and like doing things on my own. This included cooking. The end results was a family table that to me looked less like this:

family meals
In the 1960s, Families All Ate on One Side of the Table in Order to Face the TV Camera.

and more like this:

family meals
My Family Evolved to Eating Without a Table in Order to Face the TV.

Fast forward to family dinner with my two boys, Mrs. H and me and it’s a different story. Mrs. H. savored the family meal and between the two of us, we worked hard to make sure our kids had a real sit down dinner every night. This wasn’t easy. We both worked and we have one son who’s a vegetarian and another who is pretty much paleo.

I tell you this not to drag you down with the minutia of my life (if you want that minutia you can learn about it and more in my older son’s words in this episode of The Foodcast), instead it’s to recognize that all adults usually have at least two different experiences in this realm. And now I’ve disclosed my experience.

Family Meals – In General

When I write about nutrition, I usually have the luxury of a cross section of research that examines biology, physiology, chemistry, psychology, sociology and a crapload of other -ologies that provide a comprehensive picture and either confirm or refute each other. But research on family meals sways way too far towards the realm of pure social science for my comfort level. Still, research beats anecdotal evidence so let’s look at it.

Family Meals – The Rant

According to a Syracuse University study, families that habitually share a meal at home have children who are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods and 12% less likely to be overweight. Other studies show correlation between fewer delinquencies and better academic success among kids who ate more shared family meals. But, It’s estimated that 20-30% of meals are eaten in the car

Soccer practices, dance rehearsals, playdates, and other scheduling conflicts make family mealtime seem like a thing of the past. It seems like there’s a growing trend of grabbing nutrition bars for breakfast on the school bus or morning commute, eating carryout or vending machine dreck at our desks, and grabbing dinner at the drive-thru window.

And this is often how one of my rants about eating behavior often begins. So, with the opening statistics I just fired off a natural step would be for me to urge you to sit down with other people on a regular basis and enjoy a meal. After all, it’s what the H family did, we turned out OK, so why can’t you do it too?

Well, when I was a kid, you have good reasons that’s why. You’re not me and that’s a good thing otherwise you’d be responsible for this mess. And despite those statistics, when you dig into them, you find that as children become adults, all the normalcy or dysfunction of mealtime may end up meaning very little. Not to mention that those statistics were from a Syracuse University study, clearly a safety school.

The family that eats together may stay together but that doesn’t mean families that don’t, don’t. Several other factors impact our relationship with food and family.

When I was a kid, even when we ate together mealtimes were tense. Mom’s job was stressful. Being a woman in a man’s world didn’t help. That stress was often aired during mealtime. Still, my brother, sister and I each have different levels of health and eating tastes. Now that we’re adults, the way we each enjoy meals with our own families is each different and our nieces, nephews and own children are figuring things out and thriving as they venture into adulthood.

So does it really matter? I don’t know.

Here’s what I think does matter. Whether you grab meals on the go or eat them like the Cleavers, the Brady Bunch, or the families in This is Us, make sure you’re eating the way you are because you want to. You really want to. Sure sometimes schedules take away that freedom. I get it. But if it happens all the time, it may be indicative of another problem.

So at your next meal with other people. Stop striving. Don’t try and make it something it isn’t. Enjoy the food and enjoy the company. Don’t demote mealtime to being a transition between what I was doing before and what I’ll do next. If you and the people you share meals with do just that, you’ll probably glean all the benefits from the Syracuse study.

Relax and enjoy your food. Don’t let headlines and pundits, including me, turn meal time into some contrived performance that reacts to the latest headlines.

By the way, what’s not in the headlines is that in 1998, according to a Columbia University study (not a safety school), 47% of families ate at least 5 meals a week together. Ten years later that number jumped to 59%.

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