Family Mealtime All for One and One for All

By Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

When I was a child and my family was gathered together for a meal, my father would sometimes look each of us in the eye and say, “All for one, and one for all.” We eagerly repeated this to each other, enjoying the sense of belonging, service, and support. Even when those words weren’t there, the meal together was a tangible expression of our connection. My childhood is now long gone. Life has been full of ups and downs, and it seems ever more complicated and busy. But the simple tradition of family meals has had a long impact. These days, when my family sits down to dinner, my wife and four children around the table, we like to clink our glasses together and declare, “All for one, and one for all!”

It’s hard to overestimate the enormous potential of families sharing meals together. Prepare to be inspired! Even without giving extra effort or conscious thought, family meals are associated with better nutrition, better health, better behavior, and happier children, parents (and grandparents). Experts today are wringing their hands about the obesity epidemic in children and depression in teens; citizens are concerned about violence; educators are distressed by falling school performance. I wish I could write a simple prescription for all families: find a way to enjoy as many meals together, especially at home together, as you can.

Dozens of scientific studies have demonstrated an impressive list of benefits associated with eating together as a family. But some people have correctly pointed out that in the earlier studies it wasn’t clear which was causing which. It made sense to suspect that eating together promoted the benefits, but it was also possible that the association found in the studies was because happier, healthier families were just more likely to eat together. The more recent studies have taken into account other measures of family connectedness and concluded that the benefits we will explore do indeed arise at the table together.

The nutritional benefits alone are dramatic. Getting kids to eat vegetables can be frustrating for many parents. As kids eat more meals at home with their parents, they naturally begin to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy dairy products than their peers do. They are significantly more likely to achieve their nutritional needs. And they eat less in the way of deep-fried foods and drink fewer sugared and carbonated beverages. Increasing the frequency of family dinners is associated with substantially higher intake of several specific nutrients, including fiber, calcium, folate, iron, vitamins B6, B12, C, and E; and with lower average glycemic index; and with lower intake of saturated and trans fats. The benefits are even greater if kids are involved in mealtime preparation and cleaning.

Contrast a family-around-the-table meal at home to a meal at home with the television. The more often that children eat in front of the television, the more likely they are to get more of their calories from fatty meats, pizza, salty snacks, and soda; and the less likely they are to get them from fruits and vegetables. Children in high television-meal families also average twice as much caffeine consumption as do their peers.

And meals out are even worse! The typical kids’ meal in many restaurants is a nutritional wasteland. Fast food meals more than twice a week are associated with increased obesity and type 2 diabetes. Simple family meals are an important strategy to improve nutrition, prevent obesity, and improve health. But they do so much more!

Youth who eat more family meals perform better in school. They spend more time on homework, get better grades, and spend more of their free time reading for pleasure. And they are happier. They are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. They are less likely to engage in early sexual activity or to have eating disorders. Their self-esteems are higher, on average, and they are less likely to become depressed. Teens who eat many meals with their families are half as likely to think about suicide.

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