Sitting down as a family to eat (especially with a wiggly toddler) may seem overwhelming. You have to cook, set the table, and convince your child to eat her peas rather than throwing them on the floor (while your own food gets cold). Why bother?
As it turns out, decades of research say parents should bother, because family meals reap valuable, long-term benefits for children. The good news is that eating together doesn’t need to be elaborate.
We’ll get to tips for keeping mealtime simple, but first let’s take a look at how family meals benefit little ones, through the story of a dinner. Note that the main character in the story is a toddler, but we think it’s never too early to expose little ones to family meals — even before they start eating solid food!
Developmental Benefits of Family Meals
It’s nearing dinnertime and a father hands his 22 month-old toddler, Carla, a stack of napkins and asks her to take them to the table. When she’s done with that, she steps on a stool and Dad helps her use a pitcher to pour water into cups. Dad knows that helping out at home benefits little ones in valuable ways, and these mealtime tasks are an easy way to build chores into Carla’s day. They also teach her how to follow directions, and are a great way to gain independence and practice fine-motor skills.
As per their dinnertime rule, Mom and Dad silence their cell phones and leave them on the kitchen counter before heading to the table. The family sits down and embarks on a conversation (using a lively mix of words and gestures) to talk about Carla’s day at daycare. During this chat Carla practices talking, narrative skills, and social skills like conversational turn-taking. She has other opportunities to practice social skills, too, like when she gestures for more potatoes and lowers her voice after Mom demonstrates a “dinner table voice.”
For a few minutes Carla listens to her parents talk to each other. It’s one of the only times during the day that she’s exposed to their conversations, and her receptive language is busy acquiring new information. In fact, research out of Harvard University shows that family meals build children’s vocabulary even more than reading to them, because children hear an impressive amount of unique words. (Carla’s parents still read to her every day, though, because they know it’s linked to many positive outcomes.)
Carla’s been eyeing the green beans on her plate (they’re not a favorite food). Dad knows this, and stabs a few of his own with his fork and eats them with gusto. His exaggerated enthusiasm makes Carla laugh, and she imitates him. Over time, watching her parents eat healthy food at meals will land her in the pool of other children who are exposed to family meals at least three times a week: They are more likely to make healthy food choices, be at a normal weight, and avoid eating disorders.
Throughout the meal, Carla’s self-care skills are hard at work as she tries to be just like Mom and Dad: Using her fork, drinking from an open cup, and wiping her face with a napkin. She’s also beginning to learn manners, although her parents’ expectations around manners are age-appropriate: They do let her play with her food (within limits), because she’s less picky when she’s allowed to explore food with her hands.
After 15 minutes, Carla starts squirming. Her parents know this is normal, so they let her get down and play nearby. Over time, she will learn to sit for increasingly longer periods. That, along with learning appropriate mealtime behavior, will help build self-regulation skills.
If they continue to eat together, research says that Carla is likely to feel bonded with her family, and experience less depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse.
So we know family meals are linked with a host of benefits for little ones, but they may feel hard to pull off. We’ve gathered tips from experts to help you keep them simple.
Tips for Family Meals
It’s a “family meal” even if:
- It’s just one child and one adult
- It’s brief
- It’s a snack
Keep it simple by:
- Cooking a large batch of something over the weekend to reheat for weekday meals
- Prepare quick meals (The Family Dinner Project is a great resource for quick, healthy recipes)
- Toss ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning so they’re ready at dinnertime
Skip electronics because:
The benefits of family meals rely on family members connecting with each other. Personal screens are connection crushers.
If it’s hard to imagine finding time for family meals, start with one a week. It can be breakfast, weekend lunch, dinner, or a snack. Once that feels manageable, increase the frequency from there. The Family Dinner Project notes that even one shared meal a week can benefit a family.
Lastly, if you want tips for encouraging all of the mealtime learning we highlighted above, our BabySparks program is full of ideas!