The benefits of family dinner, and why experts say it’s one of the most powerful tools parents have to raise healthy, happy, and successful kids.
The Power of Family Eating Together
We all like the idea of sitting down with the family for a leisurely meal and sharing our days with each other. However, with today’s busy schedules, it’s hard to find the time!
Here’s the thing: family dinners are not just a nice bonus when you have time – they are incredibly beneficial for children’s development and future academic success!
I’ve always believed that sitting down as a family to eat daily (or as many times a week as possible) is one of the most valuable activities for children.
It turns out that researchers agree — family dinner is actually a strong predictor of future success in both school and the workplace.
5 Scientific Benefits of Family Dinner
It can be challenging with busy schedules and extracurricular activities to find time to sit down and eat dinner together. Yet, sitting down as a family is so important academically for your child and it does not have an equivalent activity that comes close to replicating its value to a child.
When I’m talking about family dinner, I specifically mean a dinner where the family members not only eat together but all technology is put away and the television turned OFF.
Family dinners are for eating and conversation, and the conversation aspect is vital!
Meaningful family meals affect all of our senses: smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight.
This is powerful stuff — a major opportunity to have a meaningful and potent affect on your child’s life!
1. Family Dinners Increase Children’s Vocabulary
Just like reading aloud to babies and children, family dinners help explode their vocabulary. Through mealtime conversations, kids are exposed to a wide variety of language and longer conversations that they get almost anywhere else.
It’s never too early to start! Experts say that including even the youngest members of the family in thee conversations has lifetime benefits, and that talking to babies like adults makes them smarter.
2. Eating Together with Family Helps Children Test Better
Eating dinner with the family has been shown to be predictor of student academic success. Simply sitting and talking with your children over dinner will give them an advantage in school they can’t quite get any other way!
A 2000 study at the University of Illinois concluded that elementary-school-aged children who ate meals with their family were the kids who scored best on standardized tests.
Researchers found that children got the maximum benefits of eating dinner with family when they did so at least four times per week.
With work, school, and kids activities, it might seem daunting to cook family dinner every night (trust me, I get it!) However, you’d be surprised what you can pull together in less than half an hour! Tools like a slow cooker or Instant Pot can make things even easier, with set-it-and-forget-it dishes.
Related: Click here to see all of our easy dinner recipes! Most take 30 minutes or less to prepare!
3. Regular Family Dinners Increase a Child’s Chance of Professional Success as an Adult
Year in and year out, employers name “communication skills” as one of the top qualities they want in their employees. Even with all the advances in technology, communication skills are still valued highly in ALL careers.
Making family dinners a priority several nights a week can substantially increase your children’s communication skills, and thus their chance at future success.
Learning to sit and converse through an entire meal helps prepare children to confidently relate to adults, bosses, and teachers.
Practicing these skills as a family will ensure that they are a lifetime habit that kids will use as adults.
4. Family Dinner Creates Healthy Eating Habits for Kids
Another one of the benefits of eating together with family is that it teaches children healthy eating habits, without them even knowing it’s happening.
That’s because eating meals at home tends to provide more nutrition, and in a more relaxed setting. Kids that eat dinner with their family are less likely to become obese or develop an eating disorder.
The simple reason is that at family mealtimes, children will see you modeling positive eating behaviors and be exposed to any foods you choose to serve. Basically, if you feed children a variety of real food they will learn to eat real food!
5. Eating as a Family Lowers the Risk of Drug Use and Depression
One of the most incredible benefits of eating as a family is that there appears to be direct correlation between a child’s emotional health and regular family dinners.
Some studies indicate less depression and later drug use in children that ate dinner with their families multiple times per week.
That’s because sitting together around the dinner table encourages open communication among the family. Even when these dinnertime conversations are simply about how each person’s day went, they develop a stronger parent-child relationship.
When kids and teens are more comfortable talking to you, their parents, in general, they are more likely to come to you in a time of crisis.
8 Ways to Create Meaningful Family Meals
I ate every dinner growing up with my family and my children did the same with their dad and me. I remember the family dinners of my childhood involved interesting discussions every night. Mom and Dad shared their days with us and exposed us to their world of work and human relations.
When my kids were growing up, we tried to do the same. Everybody was expected to be at the table at dinner time and everyone stayed until “dinner was over.”
The following are our “house rules” for creating a family dinner environment that is most beneficial to everyone:
- Limit all technology. This means no one brings their phone, tablet, or computer to the table. Turn off the television and radio. This is possibly the only time of the day you can come together as a family so be sure and limit distractions.
- Use this time to connect and catch up with each other. Have everyone share something that happened during their day. Ask questions. Share your day with you children. I can still remember my Dad talking about his work and still remember the names of some of his co-workers. He was a good story teller and we all loved these stories.
- Aim for a pleasant family dinner. This is not the time to tackle discipline issues. Save lectures and disciplinary action for another time.
- Do however, encourage good manners. My mom made us keep our elbows off the table, didn’t let us interrupt each other, and would not allow us to sing at the table. (I have no idea why this was a rule—but I can remember her saying, “No singing at the table!”) Maybe once a week, set the table properly so everyone can practice using the right type of fork. It goes without saying, I hope, no bad language or rude gestures.
- Add fun to the family dinner. One of my children’s favorite family dinner activities was sharing jokes. I am a notoriously bad joke teller but even I would look for jokes so that I would have an occasional one to add. We still laugh about some of the jokes we exchanged back in the day.
- Encourage open conversation. Let your children express themselves without too much censor. Listen to your child and their ideas. Encourage them to develop their critical thinking by actually letting them think and discuss what they’ve come up with. You have the benefit of years, education, and experience. Guide and support them in their own growth without squelching their unique expression.
- Repeat favorite meals. Not every meal you make will be memorable, but certain dishes can become a tradition that connects your family. For example, my daughter and her husband always serve salmon (the kids’ favorite food) on Mondays. They all look forward to it and I’m sure my granddaughters will always remember those Mondays even though they might not remember each and every specific meal.
- Try to cook nutritional food at home. The important thing is to aim for as nutritional as possible and try lots of different foods. Don’t make separate food for individual family members unless it’s medically required. Teach children to eat real food!
What about take-out and dining out?
Even take-out and eating out can be meaningful if you remember to incorporate the above ideas.
In fact, if you’re exhausted, then dining out or ordering in can be the perfect solution to allow you to still enjoy a family meal together without the stress of cooking or cleaning up.
Keep it simple, keep it consistent
There’s so much pressure on parenting the “right way,” especially with social media.
However, sometimes the most valuable tools for raising our children don’t require any special instructions or big expenses.
We can give our children an emotional and educational boost simply by sitting down and eating and talking with them every day around the dinner table!
About the Author
Sara is a passionate advocate of nurturing the body, mind, and spirit. She shares her wealth of experience over at her blog My Think Big Life. As a young-at-heart mom and grandmother, she loves spending time with her family — especially around the table.