Eating together regularly as a family has long been promoted as a simple solution for improving health and wellbeing.
We have been told that to achieve these proposed benefits we must follow an idealistic, age-old formula: all family members at the table, happily sharing a home-cooked meal and chatting without distractions. But the modern reality includes time-poor families, fussy eaters, siblings at odds and stress about what meals to cook – not to mention cost-of-living pressures. This combination can make achieving family meals difficult, if not impossible, for many families.
Research tells us families who eat together frequently are more likely to have better diets, better family functioning and children with higher self-esteem. But these studies cannot tell us whether the family gathering over a meal is causing these outcomes. It might be just as likely that families who eat well are more likely to eat together.
But how can we make family meals more realistic and less stressful?
We’re not sure what the link is
Our previous systematic review attempted to unpack this relationship. But we weren’t able to provide conclusive answers, largely due to limitations with study designs. Researchers didn’t look at factors like physical activity, screen time and sleep separately. And they measured “success” differently across studies, making them hard to compare.
So, we do not know with certainty the family meal is beneficial for health, only that there’s a statistical link between families that eat together and family health.
And we do not know which aspect of the family meal may be responsible. The answer might relate to food quality, screen use, mealtime atmosphere or family conversations.
A nightly challenge
In Australia, family meals often happen in the evening because it is one of the few times of day families are at home at the same time. Around three quarters of young children engage in family dinners with their caregiver more than five nights per week.
Although many parents consider family mealtimes important, they can also be stressful to achieve.
Family meals are more than what happens at the table. They require intent, effort and planning. This labour can become a relentless cycle, and it’s most commonly mothers who shoulder the burden. Many find it tough going.
The work continues once the family is seated together.
Having pleasant mealtimes and meaningful conversations may not happen naturally. Again, it is often mothers who manage the relationships and emotions around the table.
And mealtimes can become more complicated when there are multiple kids in the mix. Some parents allow TV or other screens to encourage kids to eat and to avoid arguments. This strategy has been linked with less-than-optimal dietary intakes, but can make mealtimes possible, and more manageable.
5 tips to ease the pressure
So, how can we rethink what a successful and meaningful family meal looks like? Here are five ideas for starters:
1) It doesn’t have to be dinner
Opportunities to eat together come at different times of the day, and not all family members have to be present. A meaningful eating occasion can be as simple as sharing a snack with the kids after school.
2) It doesn’t need to be perfect
There is no shame in reheating a frozen meal, throwing together pasta and sauce, serving your veggies raw, eating on a picnic rug in the living room, or occasionally watching a family TV show.
3) Don’t force the conversation
Meals are a great time to communicate, but this does not always come easily after busy days at work and school. Simple word games, listening to music and quiet time can be just as enjoyable.
4) You don’t have to do it alone
Get creative in the way you share family meal tasks with kids and partners. You could design the family menu together, have a shopping list everyone can contribute to, or divide the washing up.
5) There’s no magic number
There is no number of meals that is right for every family. It’s all about opting in how and when you can.
Rethinking family meals
When it comes to family meals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need better promotion of realistic and achievable family meals, to reduce the pressure placed on already overburdened families.
We must also consider whether systemic changes are required to support parents to have the time and energy to bring their families together for a meaningful shared meal. This could include supporting workers to finish early for meal preparation or providing more affordable, healthy convenience foods. We could also look to other cultures for inspiration.
More evidence is needed to understand which components of the family meal are most beneficial, so that we can prioritise these. Innovative research methods, such as mealtime observations in households with a range of cultures and compositions, could explore how eating occasions unfold 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 that surround them.