How often did you eat dinner together as a family growing up? Are you currently eating most of your meals alone and on the run? Do you believe that eating together as a family would impact your health?
It does indeed but in more ways than you might imagine. Recent studies have shown that parents have a great deal of influence on their children's health behaviors and that a basic way to reinforce healthy behavior might be making it a priority to sit down at least once a day to share a meal together as a family.
This much seems obvious but other studies have shown that family meal frequency is also strongly linked to a number of important behaviors such as substance use, academic performance, self-esteem, depressive symptoms, even attempts and thoughts of suicide! Eating with the family on a regular basis was found to be a potentially protective factor especially among adolescent girls.
Certainly many other factors might explain these findings but the researchers were careful to control for factors such as family connectedness, family support and communication. So what's so special about having regular meals with Mom and Dad?
Is it simply spending time together, having positive role models, discussing health issues and how to deal with them that happens at the dinner table?
A examined a large 10-year data set of adolescents looking for the active ingredients that promote health during family meals. They discovered that frequent family meals at the beginning of the study resulted in closer family ties later and may be helpful in teaching children beneficial coping skills. For example, girls who exhibited higher levels of problem-focused coping in Years 7/8 exhibited lower levels of stress, were less obsessed with their weight and had fewer bulimic symptoms in Year 10.
A critical piece then might be that eating together promotes family cohesion. When families feel close and supportive it likely helps children feel more connected and willing to seek advice when dealing with adolescent concerns. Eating together also likely makes children aware of what their parents value in terms of health. If a teenager is eating most meals in front of the TV they are likely to be exposed to the values of the marketplace to buy and consume more snacks, fast food and soda.
If a majority of a teenager's social meals are with their peers, they may be more likely to reinforce bad habits of eating sweet and high fat foods.