Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Benefits to Children of Regular Family Mealtimes©

Continuing to Reap Success* 1 September 2016
“The Benefits to Children of Regular Family Mealtimes”

I have been interested over the years when authorities of the Church encourage the practice of eating meals together as a family.  As I grew up our family had many of our meals together. Lunch was a major exception, and as we grew older and schedules differed we had fewer and fewer breakfasts together.  It seems to me that we always had dinner as a family. Virtually the same pattern existed as we raised our family. Because of the above mentioned counsel we insisted that our children be home together for dinner and we ate breakfast together nearly every morning while they were in grade and middle school and even much of high school.

This should interest young parents for many reasons. My wife and I have observed what we think is a disturbing and dangerous trend away from eating together as a family. These observations include: 1) With both parents working in many cases, schedules are more difficult to arrange to have meals together than when I was a boy–though both of my parents worked.  2) In today’s liberation society it seems that fewer and fewer mothers like to cook (and perhaps don’t know how to cook) and want to escape that task. 3)These factors lead to often leaving family members to fix their own meals. 4) They also lend themselves to another phenomenon which we have observed–more and more families eating out at restaurants at all times of the day and any day of the week. When we raised our family the budget was so tight for so many years that eating out for us was a luxury and a special event where we took pains to teach our children proper public manners and etiquette.  

I was amazed to read the following report about the infrequency of family meals in the UK.
Surveys have shown that a fifth of British children do not eat a meal more than once a week with another member of their household, and many homes do not have a dining table. Needless to say, this pattern is concentrated in the lower reaches of society, where so elementary but fundamental a means of socialization is now unknown.(1)
I wondered how that matches up with things in the United States so I did a Google search and to my surprise learned that a Gallup poll done in 2013 reported that 53% of adults with children younger than 18 say their family eats dinner together at home six or seven nights a week, and 35-38 % of those said they ate together all seven nights of the week! This trend has remained largely unchanged from 2001. While this is greater than I expected, it does leave 47% that do not have meals together at this frequency. Twenty-eight percent had dinner together 4-5 nights a week and 21% 0 to 3 nights a week.   Interestingly, even the self-described more liberal segment of society dined with their families about as frequently as moderates and conservatives. And listen to this good news, “As younger parents are even a little more likely than older ones to regularly eat dinner as a family, this seemingly traditional aspect of American life will likely continue for the foreseeable future.”(2)

This runs counter to our personal perceptions, but I hope we have been wrong about them. I remain just a tad dubious about how far the Gallup poll may be generalized, because one study shows that “Meal preparation time dropped from three hours per day in 1960 to twenty minutes in 1998.”(3) Also, one can find online a brief summarizing research on the question “Do Family Meals Really Make a Difference?” put together by two women at Cornell University. They discuss the difficulties of researching the subject and evaluating the data, nevertheless, many studies come up with positive results which I will mention below, which leads the authors to this interesting recommendation:  
Set a goal to have regular family meals at least three times per week, if possible. Most research notes some type of improvement in child outcomes when a family participated in at least three family meals together each week. Of course this is not possible for all families. If not, try to substitute family dinners with shared breakfasts, evening snacks or any similar activity that will allow your family to gather more regularly.(4)
Three times a week seems to me like a very low minimum. It is unclear whether this recommendation is made because other data suggest that families are not eating together as frequently as Gallup suggests, or if the research shows this as a minimum threshold to produce positive benefits.

Regardless, it is important to stress that there are important reasons to value and practice family mealtime together as often as possible. In April of 2005, Shirley Klein an associate professor of family life at BYU spoke in the weekly devotional.  Her subject was “Protect Our Homes, Increase Our Power.”  She talked about the spiritual warfare families faced in America and recommended the “numerous beneficial effects” of family mealtime as one antidote. Education, socialization, better nutrition and improved health were among those benefits. She touted family mealtime as one of many “everyday events” which if parents take seriously can provide parents the time and environment where children can learn important social, moral, and ethical principles.(4) The Cornell brief lists a number of benefits resulting from regular family mealtimes. Research suggests that children who participate in family meals are “less likely to be overweight,” “eat more healthy foods,” “have less delinquency,” have “greater academic achievement,” “improved psychological well-being,” and “positive family interactions.”(5) This report also lists a score of references to professional studies on the topic. I recommend that you check out both the brief and these references.

Other studies relate a host of benefits to regular family mealtimes.  One study found, “Participation in dinner table conversations offers children opportunities to acquire vocabulary, practice producing and understanding stories and explanations, acquire general knowledge, and learn how to talk in culturally appropriate ways.”(6) An article by Anne Fishel, co-founder of “The Family Dinner Project,” and professor at Harvard Medical School” discusses things such as participation in mealtime as a predictor of high achievement scores on high school tests. It has a greater relationship than time spent in school or doing homework! Adolescents who eat with their families five to seven times a week are twice as likely to get As in school than those who eat with their families twice a week. She discusses several nutritional benefits and the negative effects of eating in front of the TV. High-risk teenage behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, sexual activity, and eating disorders are lower among those adolescents regularly eating with their families. Dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts and recovering from cyberbulling are also subjects studied and reporting positive correlations with regular family mealtimes.Likewise, positive moods and views of the future in youth are apparently influenced by socialization which occurs at mealtime. (7) And on the studies go.

A vivid memory stands out from my own childhood. I wasn’t yet twelve when one evening I had dinner with a friend at his home. I still remember his father beginning a discussion about some topic and engaging the entire family in that subject. They talked and talked about it. My friend asked his father a question about something and his dad assigned him to do a little research in their family Encyclopedia and report back the next evening at dinner. I asked him if they did that often and he said, "every night." I went away wishing we did such things at our family dinners, and because it was deeply ingrained in my mind and heart I later resolved to do something about it when I had a family. We weren’t perfect, and I never felt as successful as that skillful father I saw as a young boy, but we did try to use family mealtime to help teach our children, learn from them, help them develop morals and manners as well as to interact with each other appropriately and to participate meaningfully in family discussions. I have no doubt that you, with some thought and planning could approach the ideal more closely than we did.

There is a spiritual war being waged over the definition and value of family in America. Given the frequent counsel of our leaders to regularly eat together and make the most of that time, I urge young parents to take this counsel seriously and to do some personal study about both the benefits of doing so and to think deeply about how to make mealtime the most beneficial. It should be a point of regular discussion between the parents and plans should be made regularly to maximize the use of that time together as a family.

If you have fond memories of great mealtimes or thoughts about this blog please share your stories with us in the comment section.

Let’s think together again, soon.


* Some years ago I promised returned missionaries from the CRM, that I would occasionally write some editions of our mission publication “Continuing to Reap Success.”  Here is a new installment. 

1.  Anthony Daniels, “The Worldview that Makes the Underclass,” Imprimis 43, Nos. 5/6 (May/June 2014): 2.

2.  Lydia Saad, “Most U.S. Families Still Routinely Dine Together at Home,” Well-Being, (26 December 2013).  Available online at:

3.  Information reported by Jean Zimmerman in Made from Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth (New York: Free Press, 2003), 157, cited in  Shirley R. Klein, “Protect Our Homes, Renew Our Powers,” in Brigham Young University Speeches 2004-2005, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2005), 409.

4.  Eliza Cook and Rachel Dunifon, “Do Family Meals Really Make a Difference?” See Parenting in Context, Cornell University College of Human Ecology, Department of Policy Analysis and Management, bold emphasis in original, available online at:

5.  Shirley R. Klein, “Protect Our Homes, Renew Our Powers,” in Brigham Young University Speeches 2004-2005, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2005), 409-10.

6. Abstract of Catherine E. Snow and Diane E. Beals, “Mealtime Talk that Supports Literacy Development,” Direction for Child and Adolescent Development 2006, no. 111 (Spring 2006): 51-6.

7. Anne Fishel, “The Most Important Thing You can Do with Your Kids?  Eat Dinner with Them,” The Washington Post, 12 January 2015, available online at:
    A nineteen-page September 2007 report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), entitled “The Importance of Family Dinners IV,” discusses many of these same issues related to abuse of various substances. 
    This article has many cyber links to studies which it mentions or reviews.

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