Eating meals together as a family are one of the most important things you can do as your children grow. The impact that family meals and social eating have on so many aspects of your child’s life is often underestimated and undervalued. Research shows that family meals, or social eating, provide the following benefits for you and your child:

  • Prevention of fussy eating. Children who participate more frequently in family meals have been found to have higher intakes of fruit, dark green and orange vegetables plus other key nutrients, a more balanced diet and a greater enjoyment of eating. Furthermore, involving your child in the preparation of food, allowing your child to have some choice over the food served, and having repeated exposure to new foods was found to reduce the likelihood of fussy eating.

 

  • Enjoyment of a wider variety of foods.Children are more likely to eat a wider variety of foods when others around them are eating these foods and showing enjoyment. Parents or carers can set a good example to their child by offering and enjoying a wide variety of healthy foods at family mealtimes.

 

  • It teaches children valuable social skills and manners. Enjoying meals with friends and family can allow for a relaxed atmosphere where experiences and problems can be shared which may improve quality communication with family and friends. By practicing good table manners and waiting their turn to speak, children are building the foundation for future social success.

 

  • Children who engage in regular social eating have a better vocabulary as they are provided with opportunities to hear new words and to practice them in conversation.

 

  • Children and adolescents eating family meals together at least 3 times per week are more likely to be in a healthy weight range, have healthier eating patterns and are less likely to engage in disordered eating.

 

  • Improved mental health and wellbeing in adolescents. Family meals promote a sense of connection via an opportunity for sharing and listening. The feeling of belonging to a group is central to mental health and well-being. Research has shown that family meals and social eating even outside the family context such as with friends provide a greater sense of belonging, create social bonds and provide emotional support. Social eating also provides an opportunity for sharing and listening (provided that there are no screens or devices at mealtimes!). More frequent social eating with either family or friends has been shown to reduce the risk of depression, anxiety and stress in adolescents. Furthermore, family routines and rituals seem to promote secure family relationships, which are fundamental for the proper mental development of adolescents.

So, the next time you’re tempted to let your little one eat alone in front of the TV, why not invite them to join you at the table instead? After all, social eating isn’t just about feeding their bodies, it’s about nourishing their hearts and minds too. When they sit down with family or friends for a meal, they’re not just filling their bellies, they’re building bonds that last a lifetime. Whether it’s sharing stories with siblings, laughing with cousins, or catching up with grandparents, these are the moments that make memories. Here’s to many more meals shared with the ones we love most! Bon appétit!

 

References:

Pediatrics, 2011, June; 127 (6) Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents?

Dunbar, R.I.M. Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 3, 198–211 (2017).

Victoria-Montesinos D, Jiménez-López E, Mesas AE, López-Bueno R, Garrido-Miguel M, Gutiérrez-Espinoza H, Smith L, López-Gil JF. Are family meals and social eating behaviour associated with depression, anxiety, and stress in adolescents? The EHDLA study. Clin Nutr. 2023 Apr;42(4):505-510.

Snuggs S, Harvey K. Family Mealtimes: A Systematic Umbrella Review of Characteristics, Correlates, Outcomes and Interventions. Nutrients. 2023 Jun 22;15(13):2841.