Do Family Meals Feel Unreachable for Your Family? Think Again…
I noticed something this year about myself—I tend to judge my success on any given day largely based on how well family dinner time goes. It's as though many of my efforts propel me to that one moment, when I can envision us all sitting down together, eating a healthy, homemade meal, discussing our day, and knitting our lives back towards each other after a long and hectic day in the world. Certainly family mealtime carries more significance than just being fed, for "is not the life more than meat?" (3 Nephi 13:26) It is a time to gather in from our four corners of the world and partake in a sense of unity and love. Then why do I always feel that I fall so short? As my kids get older, our "daily bread" is less and less like sitting down to feast together and more like catching food on the fly. If we were the children of Israel, we would eat our manna before it ever hit the ground! Certainly it is a balancing act of many good things, but I am relieved to find that maybe we aren't doing as poorly as I thought. Here, Jerica Berge shares with us some hope-inspiring tips on the benefits of family mealtime, even when we have to get creative with our schedules. As I read her words, I feel a great sense of joy that we can receive the blessings of our efforts as working moms, soccer moms, single moms, tired moms, sick moms, or moms like me who can't work a potato peeler to save their lives. Cheers to all our efforts to come together in love! — Becca Robison
Studies have shown that having regular family meals are a potential remedy for all kinds of problems in childhood and adolescence such as depression, unhealthy eating, obesity, eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, substance abuse, academic struggles, and family dysfunction. While these protective findings are just what every parent wants to hear for their child and family, these studies can also make some parents feel guilty. It’s hard to have family meals every night when we are pulled in every direction for kids’ activities or work schedules. We often feel too tired or stressed and unable to do one more thing. Hearing that more family meals will benefit our children just adds another checkmark to the “bad parent list.”
My research shows, however, that having family meals may not be as unreachable as we sometimes feel. For years, I have been looking for answers about how to help more families gain the health benefits from family meals without feeling guilty that they don’t have them every night. My research has investigated several questions that all of us wonder about:
( 1 ) Do you have to have a family meal every night to reap the benefits of family meals?
( 2 ) Does everyone need to be there?
( 3 ) Does it matter what types of foods are served? And,
( 4 ) Does it count to have a family meal other than dinner?
I have found that the recipe for experiencing the benefits of family meals (e.g., healthy dietary intake, healthy weight, good mental health, family communication/connectedness, less disordered eating behaviors) includes:
- Family meals only have to occur a couple times a week
- Meals can be as short as 20 minutes
- Only a few family members need to be present
- Eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner family meals count
- You can eat family meals during the week or on the weekend
- The food eaten doesn’t need to be made from scratch, having a healthy combination meal counts (e.g., stir in a vegetable with mac and cheese; serve a salad with your pizza)
- You can go out to eat a family meal
I am also comforted by the following:
- If you didn’t have family meals as a kid and you don’t currently have them with your own family, it’s never too late to start and still experience the protective benfits of family meals for yourself and your children.
- Not only kids benefit from family meals; parents also have more healthy habits when having family meals.
- When kids help make the family meal, they eat even healthier.
I have interviewed 150 parents in the Twin cities from diverse racial/ethnic groups (i.e., African American, American Indian, Hispanic/Latino, Hmong, Somali, White) in order to reach these conclusions. These families have made the following suggestions about how to make family meals doable:
- Be creative, don’t get stuck with thinking you have to have a traditional family meal with a seven-course from scratch meal
- Serve fewer options at meals, so meals don’t feel overwhelming
- See family meals as a way to strengthen your realtionships with your family members and have fun, don’t put pressure on yourself to have the “perfect” meal
- Plan ahead so that you’re not stressed at the last minute trying to decide what to have for dinner
- Switch it up and have a family meal for breakfast
One mother said: “I believe family meals matter so much because you can get that one-on-one with your child, you know even if there’s mom, dad, cousins, brothers—whoever’s at the table…that’s the time where they should feel that they can say whatever they want and not be judged, because a lot of kids are afraid of being judged, you know. This is your family. This is your dinner table. This is your food. This is your house. You should be able to say whatever you feel.” (White mother, 25 yrs.)
Another mother noted: “That’s [a family meal] one of the things that I can share if I don’t have anything else to give them…a family meal, which…is the most intimate thing you can do as a family, and so that’s why it’s so important and why we intend to keep doing it.” (African American mother, 40 yrs.)
One mother commented: “More often than not, our top goal is to all sit down at the table, all in the dining room. But a lot of times, even if we go out to eat it counts…as long as we are talking and connecting.” (White mother, 42 yrs.)
And another: “Family meals are never too hard. You know, we’ll figure out a way to fit those 10-15 minutes in somehow, you know. It might not always be the five of us, but it gets worked in somehow, sometime before the kids go to sleep, we eat a family meal.” (Hispanic mother, 47 yrs.)
And a father said: “Honestly, the only thing you need to make it a family meal is your family. You might have dinner standing at the back of the car, go party tailgating, your dinner might come off the grill—it’s a hot dog, but you’re with your family, that’s dinner. You can have dinner anywhere as long as you’re with your family.” (African American father, 39 yrs.)
While my research has given the academic world something to think about, more importantly it has informed my own family life. Like you, I am busy, with two children and a husband. We love going to kid’s soccer games, going to church activities, having hobbies, and everything else that makes our lives busy. But this can make it tough to always have family meals. We often tag-team. Sometimes one parent will have family meals with the kids, or sometimes we will have breakfast as our family meal. We try hard to get as many meals in as possible as an entire family, but I also feel okay knowing that even if we only get two meals a week, we can get the benefits!!
Jerica M. Berge
Jerica M. Berge, PhD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE is a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. As Co-Director of the Healthy Eating and Activity across the Lifespan (HEAL) Center, her work inspires a culture of health in the home. Her research examines the risks and protective factors for childhood and adolescent obesity in the home environment. She and her husband are parents to two energetic and talented children.