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6 psychological benefits of family meals

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Family mealtimes may be going out of fashion, but studies indicate there are multiple benefits to eating together

If there is one tradition that spans all cultures, it is a sit-down meal with family and friends. Family meals give parents a chance to teach their children the skills and rituals that help integrate them into the larger community. It affords parents from double income families to spend some time getting to know their children and building a close relationship with them.

Mealtimes are also an opportunity for adults to interact with each other and to build their community ties with friends. Taking a break to focus on our meal also helps us refresh our mind; so we are more productive when we get back to work.

Increasingly though, people now tend to skip these meals; either due to increased work pressure; or the guilt of ‘wasting time’ eating. Even the family dinner can be difficult to negotiate when parents and children have conflicting schedules that don’t allow for a sit down meal together.

But there does seem to be ample evidence to keep this tradition – that’s valuable for both parents and children – going. Over the last decade, research has found that regular family meals are associated with better mental and physical health, better socialisation and lowered risks for the younger family members. Mealtimes can provide an opportunity to bond and interact, thus helping parents to both support and safeguard their children.

So here are six research-backed reasons why eating together as a family is a good idea.

1) Healthier kids

When families eat together, young children are more likely to prefer healthy meals and less likely to be overweight or obese. This benefit is also seen to some extent for older children and for teenagers.

The health benefit comes from eating  regular, nutritious, home cooked meals that the children help in making or serving. Children from families that eat meals together also seem to eat more varieties of food, and are more likely to have tried different foods. This increased range of foods gives a child more healthy options for meals as well as snacking.

2) Smarter kids

Do you want to help your child build a vocabulary? Eat with them more often. Scientists have found that when parents converse with their children during meal-times, the child is more likely to know and use more words than average. Additionally, such children know six times more rare words (words that children don’t typically use) than children whose parents don’t have a sit down meal with them.

Eating together five times or more seems to help children do better in school as well. Children seem to score better on an average when they eat regularly with the parents – possibly since mealtimes are a great opportunity for parents  to discuss projects, identify weak spots and encourage strengths in the child’s academic progress.

3) Safer kids

Bullying and cyber-bullying have become ever present threats to school going children. Although there is little a parent can do to avoid bullying from ever occurring; eating together regularly seems to be helpful in recognising bullying and addressing it.

When parents talk to their children over meals, they have a greater chance of finding out if the child is being bullied. Meal times also provide a good opportunity to help the child respond to bullying and to monitor the situation.

4) Happier kids

Research spanning nearly 5000 teenagers has shown that when children eat with their parents regularly, they are more likely to be emotionally strong and have better mental health. Teens who ate regular family meals were more likely to be adjusted, have good manners and communication skills. These teens also showed lower incidence of illnesses like depression and anxiety, were less likely to be suicidal, or engage in unsafe sexual practices.

This effect is not restricted to the children. Mothers who ate with their families often were also found to be happier and less stressed as compared to mothers who did not.

5) A sobering effect

For families with teenage children, regular family meals (usually dinners) are associated with reduced incidence of drug and alcohol use by the teens. It seems that when families shared 5 or more major meals, the teens were more likely to report that they did not smoke, drink or do drugs. these teens were also less likely to have friends who drank and/or did drugs. when families shared fewer than 3 meals, this effect was not seen. Regular family meals are also linked to a lower chance of future drug use once the teens leave home for further studies or work.

6) Better relationships

Parents and children who ate regular family dinners seem to share a better relationship. They are more honest and open with each other, and the parents are more likely to know what is happening in the child’s life.

Children from families who ate together regularly felt that they could share their problem with their parents and turn to them for advice and support. On the other hand, teens from families that did not eat together regularly were more likely to feel isolated from their parents.

When family dinners are not helpful

If the family eats together, but they watch television instead of talking to each other, most of the benefits of family dinners are nullified. Even having the TV on in the background can harm the child’s attention span, the quality of the relationship he/she has with the parent(s), and overall mental development.

Family dinners are helpful when they bolster the supportive and loving relationship between spouses and with the children. But if it becomes a time when parents scold children or criticise them; family dinners can hurt the parent – child relationship rather than help it along.

If children see their parents fighting at the table, they are more likely to be distressed. Anything that makes the mealtime uncomfortable on a regular basis is an indicator of issues that may need attention. The real value of a family meal is in it’s ability to help people develop strong bonds with each other. If a family is able to relate well through other activities, but is unable to find time to eat together; they should not feel guilty about missing on regular family meals.