Healthy Living

Ways to Have More Family Meals Together

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND

Easy Cooking Tips and Benefits of Eating Together 

You’re not alone if you’d like to eat more family meals. Let’s assume that we define a family meal as one that’s eaten at home with home-prepared food and with other family members. About 50% of dinners in households with children are family dinners. Approximately 25% of lunches and 33% of breakfasts are also family meals. What can we do to improve those percentages?

According to David Emerson Feit, vice president of the Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm specializing in eating and wellness, “more than two-thirds of parents say they want to eat with their kids every night if they could.” There are many obstacles to achieving a dinner as a family, including a possible lack of cooking skills, meal planning skills, conflicting food preferences, and differing schedules among family members. And on top of all that, it takes physical and mental energy to figure out what to prepare, for whom and when, and then to actually prepare it, explains Feit.

The Benefits of Eating Together

Though cause and effect aren’t clear, the potential benefits to family meals are plenty.


•    Better nutrient intake. Children and adolescents tend to consume more fruits, vegetables, calcium, iron, and a variety of vitamins when they also have family meals. They’re more likely to eat breakfast and consume less soda, unhealthful snacks, fast food, and fried foods (1). Often, parents eat better if they're partaking in family meals too.


•    Avoidance of some risky behaviors. According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children who have frequent dinners with their parents are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke or use drugs (2).

•    Good family relationships. The same research group at Columbia University finds that teens who dine with parents often are more likely to report having a better relationship with their parents.


•    Better grades and language skills. Family meals may help young children develop language skills. Kids who rarely eat with parents are more likely to have poor grades (3).


•    Less disordered eating. Girls who report eating more family meals in a structured and positive atmosphere are less likely to exhibit disordered eating behaviors (4). Disordered eating is a term used to describe a variety of irregular eating habits similar to those seen in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia but not meeting the criteria of any one specific disorder.

Overcoming Barriers to Family Meals

A little creativity and reorganization may help you sit down as a family more often.

• Take shortcuts. Forget the idea that food has to be made from scratch. Reach for low-sodium canned and frozen foods, and fill in with some prepared foods from your supermarket. Pick up a rotisserie chicken, or stop by the seafood counter and get some shrimp steamed. Fish is also very quick and easy to prepare by adding seasonings and baking or broiling.

• Go for the basics. No one says that a family dinner has to be more complicated than soup and a sandwich. How about eggs and grits with a side of berries or diced melon. Aim for a protein-rich food and a couple of other wholesome foods.

• Think outside the dinner table. If various schedules keep you apart at dinner time, try a family breakfast or lunch on the weekends. 

• Themes. To generate some excitement and anticipation, decide on some themes. Maybe every Friday is Make Your Own Pizza Night followed by Family Game Night, Mondays are Italian night, Wednesdays are Try a New Food Night, etc. 

• Serve a flexible meal. To satisfy different food preferences, create a dinner buffet. Allow each family member to customize a pasta bowl or burrito to individual preferences.

• Change the location. If you’ve gotten in the habit of always eating meals at the kitchen table, surprise everyone and have dinner instead in the dining room! How about Saturday breakfast on the deck? An indoor picnic? 

• Start collecting. Once you and your family have some favorite meals or recipes, keep them in a file for future reference. Each child could start their own recipe box or notebook where they can start saving favorite recipes. 

• Lean on time-saving appliances. Consider using a pressure cooker or a slow cooker. One shortens the cooking time, and the other allows you to prep a meal ahead of time to have it ready when you are. There are many resources online for recipes for these two appliances.

• Cook once, eat twice or thrice. Repurpose your meals in unique ways. For example, eat traditional chili tonight, enjoy it over rice later in the week and use up leftovers in a pasta and cheese bake. Find lunches in that leftover unbaked pasta by creating a veggie-packed pasta salad.

Start collecting. Once you and your family have some favorite meals or recipes, keep them in a file for future reference. Each child could start their own recipe box or notebook where they can start saving favorite recipes. 

• It doesn’t have to be hot. It can take longer and require more effort to try to have hot meals every night. Cold dishes can be just as tasty. How about a pasta salad with sliced leftover roasted chicken breasts or a Ceasar salad with sliced hard-boiled eggs or chunks of leftover salmon.

No distractions. Make sure the television is off and cell phones are out of reach. Keep the conversation light and positive.

We know you want to eat together more often. Take the first step today and chat with your family or start brainstorming to make it happen. The special time together is worth it in so many ways!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration

This information is for educational purposes only. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your physician if you have any question regarding a medical condition

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References: 


1.    Fulkerson J, Larson N, Horning M, Neumark-Sztainer, D. A Review of Associations Between Family or Shared Meal Frequency and Dietary and Weight Status Outcomes Across the Lifespan. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014; 46(1):2-19.


2.    The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The Importance of Family Dinners V111: A CASAColumbiaTM White Paper. September 2012. https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2012


3.    Eisenberg M, Olson R, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger L. Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 2004;158(8):792-796/


4.    Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Story M, Fulkerson JA. Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? Journal of Adolescent Health. 2004;35:350–359


5.    https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating


6.    https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/13/485556027/whats-for-dinner-10-strategies-to-help-busy-parents-get-food-on-the-table


Disclosure: Some of these data came from a sponsored conference.

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