Family Meals: Big Benefits for Big Kids

Over the past several decades, studies have consistently shown that family meals have a positive effect on children in almost every way possible: nutritionally, socially, emotionally, and academically1, 2. Children who regularly participate in family meals are less likely to experience body image and eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and early sexual activity. We now know that some of these same benefits occur not just in children, but in parents as well3. These benefits remain significant across ethnicity, race, family structure (two-parent, one-parent, multi-generational), and socioeconomic status, and they extend beyond adolescence and into young adulthood. Ellyn Satter, a nutritionist and family therapist, has reminded parents and professionals for over 40 years that “the day-to-day routine of structured, sit-down, family meals and snacks reassures children that they are loved and that they will be provided for – nutritionally and in all other ways.” Furthermore, studies show that family meals have some of the same positive effects on teens’ social and emotional well-being as church attendance has on older adults2.

Here are three tips for family meals with big kids:

  1. Invest in snack time. Adolescents skip meals more frequently than any other age group, and snacking is common among teenagers4. If a family meal doesn’t work at breakfast or dinner due to varying schedules, don’t underestimate the power of sharing a snack on the parent-child relationship. One mother from our church prepared a batch of cookie dough each week and would bake cookies to share with her teenagers during study breaks at night.
  2. Fast together. Not that kind of fast. Fast foods are popular in all age groups, but especially among teenagers4. I am a nutrition professional and a Christian, so fast food does give me pause in terms of its nutritional value, how the food is produced, and fair wages for employees. However, I can admit that with our tween, sharing a fast food meal can be an effective relationship tool, especially when there is a hard conversation to be had. Nutrition and creation care are important and childhood obesity is a serious problem, but if I am playing the relational long game, then I can be realistic about my adolescent’s food culture and preferences. I can enjoy a fast food meal with him today, knowing we probably won’t need to eat fast food together for the rest of our lives.
  3. Family over food.  In family meal math, family is always greater than the meal. Another mom from our church has “miracle” meals in her busy home with teenage girls, because she feels it’s a miracle that she served anything at all some nights. These are nights when cereal or PBJ might be the main course, or the only course. It is easy to get caught up in ideals about health and food trends, but if that is exhausting me or preventing my children from enjoying the meal, then I probably need to pivot to prioritizing family over food. Alternatively, if I am an omnivore parent who loves a grocery store bargain but have an adolescent with a budding concern for the environment or interested in a plant-based diet, then I can work with him to incorporate more local foods, sustainable ingredients, or vegetarian dishes into our meal plans, even if it means I lose bragging rights on a low grocery bill.

Despite all the benefits of family meals, we know deep down that these studies offer us wisdom regarding family meals, but, like the Proverbs, they are descriptive more than prescriptive. They do not guarantee a child’s academic success, mental health, or a life free from addiction and full of friends. Family meals are also a lot of work to plan, prepare, and eat, especially on busy weekdays with long commutes and extracurricular activities. Genesis 3 reminds us that even a healthy snack like a piece of fruit can lead to a serious relational conflict.

We don’t put our hope in research, and we don’t trust in tips. Our hope is in God. Our trust is in his Son, Jesus, was who raised from the dead on our behalf, and in his Spirit, whose purifying work in our hearts extends to us, to our children, and over every meal we share, or don’t share, together or apart.

References

  1. Dallacker, M., Hertwig, R., & Mata, J. (2019). Quality matters: A meta-analysis on components of healthy family meals. Health Psychology, 38(12), 1137.
  2. Satter, E. (2008). Secrets of feeding a healthy family: How to eat, how to raise good eaters, how to cook. Kelcy Press.
  3. Utter, J., Larson, N., Berge, J. M., Eisenberg, M. E., Fulkerson, J. A., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2018). Family meals among parents: Associations with nutritional, social and emotional wellbeing. Preventive medicine113, 7-12.
  4. King, K. (2013). Essentials of pediatric nutrition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

For more evidenced-based information about making mealtimes enjoyable for families, visit https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/.

About The Author

Dr. Melissa Powell is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC). She is married to Chris Powell, Executive Pastor at North Shore Fellowship, and the mother of two children. An old dog, a good book, a big salad, and a long walk are a few of her favorite things.

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