In today’s fast-paced, digital-driven world, it’s easy to let quick texts and phone calls replace face-to-face conversations, especially in busy households with teens and children. But evidence shows that nothing replaces the time-honored tradition of connecting around the table for a family meal, especially when looking at the emotional health of those involved.
Sit Down Family Meals Support Emotional Health
A wealth of research shows that when families gather around the table to share a meal, talk about their day, and take the time to connect with each other on a deeper level, remarkable things happen. Not only do kids feel more connected to the family, but they also exhibit better emotional health, get higher grades at school, and are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.
Family Meals Foster Connection
One study found that teens who regularly sit down and share a meal with their parents feel more emotionally supported by their family than teens who don’t often dine at home . The same goes for younger children, with research revealing children who eat with their families feel closer and more connected to their parents .
Another study found that teens who shared frequent meals with their families were less likely to show signs of depression compared to those who ate fewer meals at home . Further, adolescents who frequently dine at home experience more positive moods and have a better outlook about the future compared to teens who don’t eat regularly with their families .
Experts say the magic of sit-down mealtime happens when families gather together to talk, laugh, share their day-to-day struggles, and support each other through life’s ups and downs. These moments of connection nurture a sense of belonging, leading to greater self-esteem and self-confidence .
Family Meals Increase Intellectual Development On Top of Emotional Health
Another way family meals support children and teen’s emotional health is by boosting their intellectual development and academic performance. Educational demands (homework, poor grades, challenging tests, etc.) are the biggest cause of stress and anxiety for teens and children, according to a study by the Better Sleep Council . And as one study revealed, these academic-related stressors can have devastating impacts on children’s and teen’s mental and emotional well-being.
For example, students who experience higher levels of academic-related stress often report lower levels of well-being, perform poorly in school, have lower levels of motivation, and are at an increased risk of school dropout . In addition, ongoing stress can trigger the development of mental health issues like depression and anxiety .
The good news is, sit-down family meals may improve emotional health by lowering academic-related stress in children and teens. Researchers discovered that dinnertime conversation increases children’s vocabulary significantly more than being read aloud to. In the study, young children learned 1,000 rare words (words not found on the list of the 3,000 most commonly used words) just by sitting at the dinner table and hearing/taking part in family conversations.
In comparison, these same children learned only 143 rare words by listening to parents read storybooks aloud. And as evidence shows, children with a larger vocabulary learn to read earlier and more easily than children with smaller vocabularies .
But young kids aren’t the only ones to benefit academically from sit-down family meals. For school-age children under 13, consistent family mealtimes are an even greater predictor of high academic achievement, even more so than time spent in school, doing their homework, and engaging in extra-curricular activities like sports .
Further research reveals teens who ate meals with their family 5 to 7 times per week were 2x as likely to get A’s in school than teens who ate meals with their families less than two times a week .
As families sit around the table and discuss what’s going on in each other’s lives (homework assignments, upcoming projects, test scores, etc.), children and teens are able to learn from their parents’ conversation, get support and encouragement, ask for help and guidance, and have extra accountability as they navigate their school years. This, in turn, improves their intellectual and academic development, ultimately supporting their emotional well-being.
Family Meals Promote Positive Behavior
Finally, sit-down family meals have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of binge drinking, smoking, marijuana use, sexual activity, eating disorders, and violence . One study confirmed that when families share five or more meals per week together, teens are less likely to smoke, do drugs, or drink, and are less likely to make friends with teens who use drugs and alcohol .
Further, regular sit-down meals are directly linked to a lower risk of future drug use, even after the teen leaves home . Perhaps surprisingly, sit-down family meals deter teens from engaging in these types of harmful behaviors even more than good grades or church attendance .
The impact of sit-down family meals on emotional health is able to take root when parents and kids talk about their struggles and successes, gain a sense of belonging, and connect with each other on a deeper level. So turn off the TV at mealtime, call the kids down to the dining room (even if all you’re serving is frozen pizza!), and start making connections and memories around the family table.
References: Sifferlin, A. (2012, April 24). Why Families Who Eat Together Are Healthier. Time. https://healthland.time.com/2012/04/24/why-families-who-eat-together-are-healthier/.  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2012). The Importance of Family Dinners VIII. New York City, New York: CASAColumbia.  Sifferlin, A. (2012, April 24). Why Families Who Eat Together Are Healthier. Time. https://healthland.time.com/2012/04/24/why-families-who-eat-together-are-healthier/.  Anne Fishel Author of Home for Dinner and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology. (2020, September 11). Science says: eat with your kids. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/science-says-eat-with-your-kids-34573.  The Importance of Family Mealtime. FCC. (2016, September 22). https://www.fcconline.org/the-importance-of-family-mealtime/.  Council, B. S. (2018, December 11). Better Sleep Council Research Finds That Too Much Homework Can Actually Hurt Teens’ Performance In School. PR Newswire: news distribution, targeting and monitoring. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/better-sleep-council-research-finds-that-too-much-homework-can-actually-hurt-teens-performance-in-school-300763823.html.  Pascoe, M. C., Parker, A., & Hetrick, S. E. (2019, January 29). The impact of stress on students in secondary school and higher education. Taylor & Francis Online. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2019.1596823.  ibid.  Anne Fishel author of Home for Dinner and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, A. (2020, September 11). Science says: eat with your kids. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/science-says-eat-with-your-kids-34573.  ibid.  ibid.  Sen, B. (2009, May 23). The relationship between frequency of family dinner and adolescent problem behaviors after adjusting for other family characteristics. Journal of Adolescence. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0140197109000372?via=ihub.  Rochman, B. (2010, September 27). Simple Fix: Family Dinners Help Teens Avoid Drinking and Using Drugs. Time. https://healthland.time.com/2010/09/27/dont-ditch-dinner-your-teens-will-be-more-likely-to-drink-and-drug/.  Gauri Sarda-Joshi is a professional writer, Sarda-Joshi, G., & Name*. (2015, December 30). 6 psychological benefits of family meals. Brain Fodder. https://brainfodder.org/eating-together/.  Anne Fishel Author of Home for Dinner and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology. (2020, September 11). Science says: eat with your kids. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/science-says-eat-with-your-kids-34573.
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published September 25, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 25, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC