Eating together regularly as a family has long been promoted as a simple solution to improve health and well-being.
We’ve been told that to achieve these proposed benefits, we must follow an age-old, idealistic formula: all family members at the table, happily sharing a home-cooked meal, and chatting without distractions. But modern reality includes time-poor families, finicky eaters, disagreeing siblings And stress on cooking meals – not to mention cost-of-living pressures. This combination can make making family meals difficult, if not impossible, for many families.
Research tells us that families who often eat together are more likely to have better diets, better family functioning and the children with better self-esteem. But these studies can’t tell us whether family gathering over a meal is responsible for these results. It’s just as likely that families that eat well are more likely to eat together.
But how do you make family meals more realistic and less stressful?
We don’t know what the link is
Our previous Systematic review attempted to unpack this relationship. But we were unable to provide conclusive answers, largely due to study design limitations. The researchers did not look at factors such as physical activity, screen time, and sleep separately. And they measured “success” differently across studies, making them hard to compare.
So it’s not known for sure that the family meal is beneficial to health, only that there is a statistical link between families eating together and family health.
And we don’t know what aspect of the family meal may be responsible for it. The answer could relate to food quality, use of screens, meal atmosphere Or family conversations.
A night challenge
In Australia, family meals often take place in the evening as it is one of the few times of the day when families are home at the same time. About three quarters of young children engage in family dinners with their caregiver more than five nights a week.
Although many parents consider family meals to be importantthey can also be stressful to do.
Family meals are more than what happens at the table. They ask intention, effort and planning. This job can become a relentless cycle, and it is most often the mothers who bear the burden. A lot find it difficult.
Meal time management
The work continues once the family is reunited.
Have enjoyable meals and meaningful conversations may not happen naturally. Once again, it is often the mothers who manage relationships and emotions around the table.
And meals can become more complicated when there are several children in the mix. Some parents allow TV or other screens to encourage children to eat and avoid arguments. This strategy was associated with less than optimal food intakebut can make meals possible and more manageable.
5 tips to relieve the pressure
So how do we rethink what a successful and meaningful family meal looks like? Here are five ideas to get started:
Rethinking family meals
When it comes to family meals, there is no one size fits all. We need better promotion of realistic and achievable family meals, to reduce the pressure on already overstretched families.
We also need to determine if systemic changes are needed to help parents have the time and energy to bring their families together for a meaningful shared meal. This could include supporting workers to finish meal preparation early or providing more affordable and healthier convenience foods. We could also seek to other cultures for inspiration.
More evidence is needed to understand which components of the family meal are most beneficial, so we can prioritize them. Innovative research methods, such as mealtime observations in households of varying cultures and compositions, could explore the unfolding of eating occasions in real time.
Family meals can be a positive experience, with the potential for good health outcomes. But they could be even better if we reduce all the pressure and expectations around them.