The key role of family dinners in childrens health and wellbeing

No time for family dinners? You’re not alone. With a hectic program of after school activities and homework to coordinate, many Australian families find it hard to slot in a regular meal round the dinner table.

Yet despite the challenges, researchers say it’s worth striving to make time to eat together as a family. As it turns out, family dinners can help teach children a lot more than how to hold a knife and fork correctly and that eating your greens really is good for you.

Researchers both locally and abroad have looked closely at the role family dinners can play in the development of children’s mental health and wellbeing, discovering some surprising results in the process. Here are a few ways that regular family dinners can help your children:

Give their mental wellbeing a boost

According to researchers at the University of Colombia, children and teens (aged 12-17) who eat dinner at least five times a week with their family may be more likely to report having high-quality relationships with their parents. These children also tend to be at lower risk of developing poor lifelong eating habits and weight problems. The researchers also found that family dinners may help to reduce behaviours in children that negatively impact their health and wellbeing, such as alcohol and substance abuse.
 
Meanwhile, a Canadian study showed that adolescents (aged 11-15) who ate regular family dinners seemed to displayed stronger emotional wellbeing, more helpful behaviours and were more satisfied with life overall. According to the study, family dinners can help to provide opportunities to express concerns and feel valued, both of which can be conducive to good mental wellbeing in adolescents.

Increase their vocabulary and academic performance

Researchers from Harvard University’s The Family Dinner Project say regular family meals can help contribute to children achieving higher marks at school, being more resilient and having higher self-esteem. Family Dinner Project founder and professor at Harvard Medical School, Anne Fishel says family dinnertime conversations can help boost vocabulary in younger children even more than being read aloud to. For school-aged children, she says family dinners may impact high achievement even more than doing homework.
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Improve their nutritional intake

Eating dinner as a family can help to encourage healthy eating in parents and children alike, and may even help picky eaters adopt a more adventurous approach to food.

This study found that family dinners can help to increase children’s consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits, while limiting their intake of fried foods and soft drinks. Other studies have shown that healthy family dinners can help to provide children with higher intakes of fibre, calcium, iron and other essential vitamins and minerals.

Being in the same room is not enough

According to a 2015 VicHealth report, it’s not enough to simply eat as a family; you also need to converse with one another. And that means – yep, you guessed it – switching off the TV. The VicHealth study found that children who frequently eat dinner in front of the TV are more likely to be overweight or obese than those who have the TV off.
 
Meanwhile, this study revealed children in families who eat an evening meal together without the TV on are more likely to participate in dinner table conversations, offering them opportunities to “acquire vocabulary, practice producing and understanding stories and explanations, acquire general knowledge, and learn how to talk in culturally appropriate ways.”
 
As Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch once said, “Family dinners are really great. We eat the food and then the plate!” You don’t have to go quite that far – but putting family dinners on the menu is one way to help give your children’s mental and physical wellbeing a real shot in the arm.
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