3 Big Ways Family Dinners Can Make Kids' Lives Better

How eating together as a family can yield countless benefits for kids

Eating dinner together is important for kids' health and development in many surprising ways.. Mark Bowden/Getty Images

How often do you sit down together as a family to eat dinner? If the answer is something along the lines of "not much more than a couple of times a month" or "whenever we can fit it in here and there," it may be time to figure out how to make family dinner a priority, and make sure it becomes a regular part of your family's routine schedule.

Why is it so important to eat dinner with your kids regularly?

One reason is that family dinners have been associated with all kinds of positive outcomes for kids. Many studies have linked family dinners with a wide-range of benefits, including lower rates of obesity, better academic performance, and even increased resilience against bullying. Another, and perhaps even more important reason, is that dinnertime is a perfect opportunity to catch up with your kids and talk over the day, and get closer to each other as you strengthen your relationship. "Kids open up at random moments," says Lynn Barendsen, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that works to give families the tools and information to make it easier to incorporate family dinners into their lives. Unwinding over a meal after a busy day at work and at school is a perfect time to allow kids to talk about what's on their minds.

When you consider how many positive outcomes are associated with something as ordinary as having dinner with your kids, it becomes clear that this seemingly simple activity is one of the most important things families can do together.

Here are just some of the many ways regular family dinners can have a positive effect on your child's development and behavior:

1. Better health and nutrition
Research has shown that when kids regularly eat dinner with their families, they will be more likely to have healthy eating habits and less likely to be obese.

Kids whose parents eat dinner with them regularly have these traits:

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Tend to eat more healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits and drink less soda
  • Are more likely to continue to eat a healthier diet when they grow up and make their own choices

2. Strong mental, social, and emotional skills
Studies have shown that kids who regularly eat dinner with parents experience psychological and emotional benefits such as:

  • Higher self-esteem and resilience
  • More positive family interactions
  • Lower rates of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower rates of depression 
  • Better body image and reduced risk of developing an eating disorder
  • Better social and emotional health (One study found that kids who have regular family routines such as eating dinner, reading, or playing together are more likely to have empathy, understand emotions, and form positive relationships with others, among other social and emotional health factors.) 

3. Better performance in school and better behavior
Kids who eat with their parents regularly have been shown to perform better academically.

 Specifically, kids who regularly ate family dinners had the following traits:

  • Higher grades (One study from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) study found that adolescents who ate dinner with their families about 3 to 5 times per week were twice as likely to get As in school compared to classmates who rarely ate family dinners, according to The Family Dinner Project.
  • Reduced risk for delinquency 
  • Ability to have complex conversations
  • Stronger vocabulary skills and higher reading scores

While nothing we do as parents can guarantee that our kids will turn out to be happy, healthy, kind, and well-adjusted individuals, it's clear that making family dinners a regular part of our daily schedules is a great way to boost kids' chances of being healthier physically, mentally, and even emotionally. Of course, other factors, such as a family's socioeconomic background, the quality of the relationship between parents and kids, and whether or not a mom works outside of the home can all affect kids' development, and it may not be just eating together that influences how kids' happiness and health. (Recent research from Cornell has tackled just this issue, and found that, even when adjusting for other factors like socioeconomic background, race, and family structure, kids were less likely to be depressed when they ate regular family dinners with their parents.)

But regardless of exactly how much family dinners can influence kids' development, one thing is certain: There is no downside to parents regularly spending time with kids just doing an ordinary activity like eating together and talking and growing closer. There is only plenty of benefit, for both parents and kids.

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