family meals matter

I grew up in a farming family. My mom gave up her teaching career to be a stay-at-home mom (or what I better see now as a work-from-home mom). I don’t know how she did it, but she always had a home-cooked meal on the table for us at supper.

We didn’t always eat together though, especially as my sisters and I grew older and had extra-curricular activity commitments. I recall many meals eaten rink-side during my years spent figure skating in particular.

I can’t always tell you what we ate, aside from the one too many pork chops, which is a by-product of being a pork farmer’s daughter! But, I can tell you that my middle sister often ‘performed’ at the table by eating her meal standing on her chair. Meanwhile, my older sister ate at a snail’s pace. We shared a lot of laughs, had our fair share of fights, as well as sentimental conversations around the table.

Now as a mom, I realize just how much work goes into making family meals happen! Understanding the benefits that family meals provide for my kids motivates me to continue to prioritize time together around the table. There are very real barriers however to making family meals happen in my family (and I’m sure in yours too)! The 5 o’clock frenzy to get a meal on the table is relentless!

Let’s look at the benefits of family meals before we look at some of the barriers to getting these meals on the table.

Benefits of Family Meals for Children

It is well known and established that family meals are beneficial for children. I took a look at the most current reviews and meta analyses on the topic and the evidence still points to the beneficial associations between sharing family meals and children’s health.

Nutritional benefits

Studies have found that kids who eat supper with their parents tend to have better diet quality (they eat more fruits, vegetables and dairy foods and consume lower amounts of fat, soda and fried foods) and have a lower body mass index. This meta-anlaysis looked at which particular components of family meals contributed to these positive health outcomes. They found that turning the TV off during meals, parental modelling of healthy eating, higher food quality, a positive mealtime atmosphere, children’s involvement in meal preparation and longer meal duration were all associated with the nutritional benefits of family meals.

Lower risk behaviours in teens

Another review of 18 studies on this topic found that teens who frequently ate meals with their family were less likely to engage in risk behaviours compared to peers who never or rarely ate meals with their parents. It was interesting to see that this protective effect differed for females and males depending on what outcome was measured.  

Overall, eating family meals was associated with:

  • lower rates of alcohol and marijuana use (particularly for females)
  • lower rates of tobacco use (for males and females)
  • being protective against disordered eating patterns (for males and females)
  • lower aggression and violent behaviours
  • positive influence on school performance
  • minimizing or delaying sexual activity in teens
  • lower rates of mental health problems (e.g. depression and suicide)

Benefits for infants and toddlers

Many of these benefits have been studied in children and adolescents, but what about infants and toddlers? Though there are limited studies in this area, this review revealed that the pattern of positive associations between family meals and child health exist in this age group too. Sharing family meals for infants and toddlers is associated with more nutrient-dense food intake, less fussy eating and more food enjoyment.

Benefits for parents/caregivers too!

Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from family meals! This study reported that frequent family meals were associated with higher levels of family functioning, greater self-esteem, lower levels of depressive symptoms and stress and greater fruit and vegetable intake. These associations were similar for both mothers and fathers.

A family meal doesn’t need everyone at the table

This review confirmed that the nutritional benefits from frequent family meals didn’t require the entire family to be present at the table – the effect was consistent even when only one parent was present. Don’t forget this! You and your child sitting together counts as a family meal!

Despite knowing the myriad of positive outcomes associated with family meals, there is no denying that getting meals on the table day after day is not the easiest task at the best of times!

It’s undeniably hard for parents to get a meal on the table when they’ve both worked a long day and have minimal time (or energy) to cook a dinner from scratch.

But do we always need to cook meals from scratch to derive these benefits from shared family meals? Absolutely not! Let’s look at six big barriers to eating family meals and how we can navigate around them.

6 Barriers & Solutions to Making Family Meals Happen

#1 Limited time/too busy

Despite a global pandemic, life at home hasn’t slowed down for families. Parents working and kids learning all at home has made it busier and more challenging to keep up with the demands of hungry kids while juggling a full-time work load.

Solution: Follow the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Silly! Meals don’t have to be elaborate. Aim to incorporate a vegetable, starch, protein and fat at each meal. This can be as simple as serving an egg salad sandwich with veggies for dinner or throwing a roast with potatoes and veggies in the crockpot. Appliances like pressure cookers, crockpots, and air fryers can all make the job easier too. If there is simply no time to cook at the supper hour, consider making supper in the morning or meal prepping on the weekend.

#2 Decision-fatigue

We’ve all been there. Starring at a blank piece of paper for 30 minutes as you wonder what the heck to make for dinner this week AGAIN! Decision-fatigue around planning family meals is REAL! Fortunately, there is a solution!

Solution: Take an afternoon to make a master-list of all your go-to recipes. Categorize them in a way that makes sense to you. Then, when it’s time to plan your meals, you simply need to select 5-7 meals from your master list and boom! You’re done! More on how to create a master list in our meal planning resource here!

#3 Schedule conflicts (no one is at home at the same time)

So many children’s activities tend to take place right over the supper hour. And while it’s great for kids to be involved, many families wind up in the drive through. Parents often have to work over the supper hour too. How can you make family meals happen if everyone is running in 10 different directions?

Solution:  Family meals don’t just have to happen at supper. Think about having a sit-down family meal at breakfast. (Yes – eating a bowl of cereal together counts as a family meal!) If mornings don’t work, try planning simple meals to bring to the rink, gym or pool and sit with your kids as they eat their meal. Some families consider protecting 1 or 2 evenings every week for a family dinner when signing up for activities. Remember that a family meal doesn’t need everyone present – one parent and one child eating together counts!

#4 No plan for meals

Are you suffering from the 5 o’clock freak out? Or the 6 o’clock scramble? Basically, do you start fretting right before supper about what the heck to make?

Solution: One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself is to plan at least a few meals in advance. Planning alleviates the stress around trying to find something to make for supper while everyone’s starving and you’re strapped for time. A little planning can go a long way for stress reduction and will minimize last-minute take-out stops, saving you money too! I like to plan meals one week at a time. Others prefer to plan every morning while some prefer to plan an entire month in one shot. Experiment with what works best for your family and schedule.

#5 High expectations

You may think that to benefit from having a family meal together it needs to be a home-cooked meal made from scratch. This is far from the truth!

Solution: If you’re not prioritizing family meals because you think they’re not going to be “good enough” think again! You’re doing better than you think! Any meal eaten together is better than no family meal at all. Remember that many of the benefits associated with family meals are likely due to the time spent together. So order the pizza, add some veggies and dip to the table along with a glass of milk or water and gather everyone around the table.

#6 Picky eating

Selective eating (aka picky eating) is a BIG barrier for many families. Why make a family meal when your child/children won’t even touch it? There’s nothing more frustrating!

Solution: Kids can only learn to like the foods that they are exposed to so don’t give up on putting something new or ‘disliked’ on the table. Try to be considerate to their preferences without catering by adding 1 or 2 preferred foods to a family meal. P.S. Check out our 1:1 coaching program and online programs to help kick picky eating to the curb!

Do you have more questions about family meals? Contact us today and let us help you get started!