No '90s family sitcom was complete without the stereotypical dinner or breakfast scene around the table. Delicious roasts and tasty pancake stacks were left untouched as playful conversation around the table was intermittently interrupted by audience laughter.
Today, in most US households, the reality of family meals is vastly different. In most cases, the table has been abandoned and meals are most often eaten in front of the television, in separate rooms, or at separate times. The latest research suggests that eating together as a family, or group, has an array of positive effects on physical and mental health, academic performance, and general well-being. That's why we at Coachbit are a big fan of shared meals and have laid out three simple tips to prioritize and plan family mealtime.
Eating communally as a family unit is becoming less and less common, especially in the US. Only 30% of American families share meals regularly and the average family shares a meal less than five days a week.
These statistics come as no surprise as digital devices have infiltrated our lives and consumed our attention, days have become jam-packed with extracurricular activities, and our work life and home life have become enmeshed.
Meals have also become quicker and unhealthier -- all in the name of efficiency. In the US, 20% of all meals are eaten in a car (likely shoveled down) and the majority of Americans consume at least one fast food meal per day.
For centuries, and arguably millennia, the dinner table, or campfire, has acted as a unifier and a place of community. New research from the University of Oxford explains exactly why: Communal eating increases social bonding, and feelings of well-being and enhances one's sense of contentment and embedding within a community.
This study supports an array of existing research which finds that sharing meals with friends or family facilitates social bonding and contributes to a happy and satisfying life.
For children and adolescents, the research shows that sharing meals is even more important.
A study by Columbia University found that children who eat dinner with their parents more often, more than five times per week, are less vulnerable to substance abuse than those who share meals with their parents less regularly.
In addition, they eat more healthily, perform better academically and report feeling closer to their parents. According to Anne Fishel, executive director of Family Dinner Project, the mental health benefits of meal sharing are also noteworthy. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety and higher rates of resilience and higher self-esteem.
It's not always easy to get the whole family around the table for dinner. It's time we take the pressure off ourselves and realize that family meals will never look perfect, as they may have in 90's sitcoms, but they will always be beneficial and meaningful. We've outlined a few tips to get you started.
1. Start Small
As with every new habit and routine it's always important to start small. The same applies to family meals. It's unrealistic to set the expectation or goal of eating together every day of the week so we recommend starting with something more achievable - like once a week.
Make sure each family member buys into the process and prioritizes the meal -- set a calendar or reminder on the fridge so that nobody can make any excuses for not making it. More importantly, if for some reason not everyone can make it, make sure the meal goes ahead. A meal between two is a meal shared and that's enough to reap the benefits!
2. Ditch the Devices
This one can be tricky, especially for teenagers. If you are starting with just one meal a week then it isn't a big ask for everyone to put away their phones and other digital devices. Having devices put away, in another room, ensures that nobody around the table is distracted and that in-person conversation and connection are prioritized. This includes making sure the television is turned off.
Studies have found that even having a phone present (not in use) between two or more people sharing a meal, hurts social connection. Digital devices create what is known as 'polyconsciousness,' in which our attention is torn between those we are physically with and those with whom we are connected via the device.
3. Make it Exciting
The more you share meals, the more repetitive and mundane it can get. That's why mixing it up is so important. If you only share one meal a week, making each meal special and different is a little easier. If you manage to share multiple meals a week, then it may be easier to allocate one meal a week where things are mixed up.
There are many ways to make meals unique. The most obvious is a change of scenery.
The science speaks for itself:
If you want your child in optimal health, eat together. If you want your child to perform better academically, eat together. If you want your child to avoid risky behaviors, eat together. If you want your child to feel love and belonging, eat together.
Getting into the habit of sharing meals as a family won't be perfect and it may not be easy. Some meals will be easier than others. But starting small will take the pressure off, keeping devices away will help with connection, and mixing it up will keep things fun.
Miller DP, Waldfogel J, Han WJ. Family meals and child academic and behavioral outcomes. Child Dev. 2012 Nov;83(6):2104-20. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01825.x. Epub 2012 Aug 7.
Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared Experiences Are Amplified. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2209–2216
Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237–246.
How we respond to stress and anxiety gives us a degree of control over how we allow it to affect us and alter our well-being. This is thanks to neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to change. We can transform anxiety into something useful by changing our thinking and taking practical steps to work through anxiety rather than avoid it.
A Stanford School of Medicine study shows that the teenage brain is wired to ignore the sound of their parents' voices in favor of unfamiliar outside voices. During adolescence, teens are biologically seeking independence, a period which can be scary and frustrating for parents.
Fear-setting is an extremely helpful tool for adults and children alike to learn to identify their fears and to separate what can be controlled from what cannot. By focusing on what is in our control, and taking action, we can decrease emotional reactivity and stress.