A family meal can be beneficial in more ways than one

Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2022

It’s hard to think of this season and not think of all the family meals around the dinner table for a holiday celebration. However, a recent study suggests that families and friends who dine together might live healthier and longer.

The American Heart Association study finds that 91% of parents notice their family is less stressed when they share family meals together. The study also says that, unfortunately, people find themselves eating alone about half of the time.

“Family involvement is hugely important for treating depression and anxiety,” said Janice Schreier, family therapist in psychiatry and psychology, Mayo Clinic Health System. “Most family dinners are pretty positive. When families are eating together and having family meals, they are sharing quality positive time that is enhancing the family relationship. Communication opens between each of the family members. Family dinners are just great for both the physical body and mental health.”

The pandemic and other health concerns recently caused families and friends not to get together as much as they had in the past, but the desire to see each other and talk over a dining table is there, Schreier suggests.

The study echoes that sentiment. It shows that 84% of adults wish they could share a meal together more often. The survey also found that 67% of people say sharing a meal reminds them of the importance of connecting with other people, and 54% say it reminds them to slow down and take a break.

“The benefits from a physical standpoint are very obvious,” says Mark Beahm, M.D., family physician, Mayo Clinic Health System. “Meals together with family and/or friends offers decreased risks of depression, anxiety, heart disease, stroke and substance abuse. It can also help boost self-esteem, especially in children. It doesn’t have to be every single day. It can be periodic. At times, involve your kids and have them help prepare the meal or have them pick the menu.”

Nearly 7 in 10 survey respondents who are employed said they would feel less stressed at work if they had more time to take a break and share a meal with a co-worker. Those surveyed also say they are more likely (59%) to make healthier food choices when eating with other people, but have difficulty aligning schedules with their friends or family to do so.

“Because you’re more careful about what you’re eating when eating with others, you’re self-conscious about it. You also, as a parent for example, are a role model for your children,” says Schreier. “So, if you’re eating healthy, they’re going to eat healthy, too. If we’re eating a meal with our family, that’s a more reasonable, appropriate meal.”

“I think that’s where the real benefit of the holiday meals does come, as they are generally home-cooked. We know for sure that the more home-cooked meals people eat, the lower their risk of heart diseases, lower risk of diabetes and obesity,” Beahm advises.

Good nutrition during mealtime — whether it be during the holidays or just a lunch date with friends — is much more than what people eat and the grams of saturated fat or sugar on your plate, Beahm said. It can have a little deeper meaning starting with the holidays, and starting new traditions may help people reconnect with healthy habits that would serve them well throughout the year

“Maybe we can take advantage by starting with this Thanksgiving. For families that don’t eat meals together, this may be a good jumping-off point,” Beahm said. “This may be an opportunity to start a new trend for your family. Maybe start with having a family dinner once a week. There’s a benefit to it. Family dinner doesn’t mean that everybody must be there. We all know we’ve got busy lives with active kids and alternating work schedules. It doesn’t have to be every single person at the table for it to count. It just needs to be two people having a conversation with the television and phones off.”

“Adults and parents would be surprised to know that actually teenagers will tell you that they appreciate that, too,” adds Schreier. “I think sometimes parents think that kids aren’t interested in being around their parents. I don’t find that to be true. A lot of times it’s the teenagers or the youth I work with that are telling me they would like to eat dinner with their parents more and have more family dinners.”

Beahm says there is tremendous value, especially during the holidays, in revisiting the traditional foods, cooking the same foods that grandmothers and great-grandmothers prepared before, while honoring other previous family traditions.

“You will reap the benefits from these dinners for years to come,” Beahm said.