Family Meal Time: How Important is Eating Together?

How much time do you save for family meals? As it turns out, eating together with your loved ones may directly affect your health.

It is inevitable that as we grow older, we become creatures of habit. We get accustomed to a set routine and lifestyle, and sometimes let our hectic schedules and worries get in the way of taking care of one of the most important aspects of our life; our health and well-being.

As adults, work usually becomes our main priority, and eating healthy often takes a back seat to the many other things that consume our lives. Unfortunately, we then carry these habits into parenthood and our kids follow suit.  

Is family meal time becoming endangered?

Over the last 25 years, eating together at home with family and friends is less frequent every day. Gone are the days of the dining room table conversation, replaced by the television and take-out.

Today, less than two out of five people eat at home together with their families on a weekly basis, according to a poll done by Gallup.  

We are too busy and distracted with work, cell phones, fast food, and restaurants to enjoy the many health benefits of shopping healthy, preparing and cooking food together, and most importantly, sharing meals together as a family or with friends and community.  

Most alarming is that the majority of children today do not engage in regular family meals at home. Only about 30 to 40 percent of families in the U.S. eat together only two to three times a week, according to CBS News. With fewer family meals, children are less likely to eat the right kind of healthy foods like fruits, veggies and whole grains, required for a well-balanced meal.  

Why eating together as a family is a healthy habit

The lack of experience in sharing these foods at a nightly family dinner is preventing a valuable and healthy lifestyle lesson from being learned by children. It is important to let our kids know the value of communicating with your loved ones, and sharing your daily life at the dinner table, especially in this day and age.  Dinner with the family is a great way to decompress after a hectic day, reconnect, and recharge your batteries.  

Eating together as a family not only creates a sense of togetherness, but it also creates memories and values that will be passed on to the next generation.

Eating with your family and friends also forces you to slow down, become mindful, and brings a much needed disconnect from the outside world.   And, perhaps, author Michael Pollan said it best in his book Food Rules, “The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.”

As a practicing physician for over 30 years, I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  I love what it has done to enhance our lives and make my work, as well as my personal daily life, so much easier in immeasurable ways.  I also love the role it plays in helping to educate and treat my patients in ways not otherwise possible.  However, with all of the wonderful life-enhancing features and benefits that it offers, I also feel that an aspect of human communication has been lost.  

With technology constantly at our fingertips, the “art of the conversation” is becoming a thing of the past.  Today you can have a whole conversation with someone (via text) without ever actually “talking” to them.  Parents juggling school, work, and home rely, more than ever, on communication and transportation technology to make their lives faster and more efficient.  But as a result, technology’s impact on our families is fracturing its very foundation, and causing a disintegration of core values that has held families together for centuries.  

As a Kaiser Foundation study showed in 2010, elementary school-aged children in the United States use, on average 7.5 hours per day of entertainment technology, and 75 percent of these children have TV’s in their bedrooms, and 50 percent of homes have the TV on all day.  It is evident that 21st century families are spending more time with their computers, tablets and smartphones than they are with their families.  It is essential to teach our kids healthy living, free of outside pressures and disconnected from technological world.

Facts on the importance of family time at the dining table

And if I haven’t convinced you already to start eating together as a family on a regular basis, as often as possible, then here is some tangible proof of why you should.  

A study published in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that out of 4,746 children ages 11 to 18, frequent family meals were associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking, and using marijuana. The study also showed a lower rate of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts, and better academic performance among those who spent more family meal time.  

Another study done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported in a survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, that adolescents who reported eating two or less dinners a week with their family were more than one-and-a-half times as likely to smoke, drink, or use illegal substances than were teenagers who had five to seven family dinners.

With that being said, I cannot emphasize enough the need to put an end to these unhealthy habits and go back to basics and tradition.  Start by shopping for healthier foods, shut down those cell phones and experience the smiles, thoughts, and relaxation of a family meal.  It’s essential to your and your family’s good health.