Eating together has long been viewed as one of the cornerstones of family life. From sharing what happened at school or work earlier that day, to gossiping about the latest family drama – gathering around the dinner table is about far more than just eating.
While a treasured tradition, the family dinner has long battled for its place in our increasingly busy agendas. “The death knell for the family dinner supposedly sounded in 1986, when the first microwave meal came on to the market”, reported the BBC in 20021. Since then, the number of hurdles between us, and a nice, home-cooked family dinner, have only increased.
In our fast-paced society, making time to gather around the table to eat together can be difficult in itself. Throw into the equation the countless distractions we now have at our fingertips, and organising a chatty family dinner can seem an impossible feat. In fact, our recent Health Check Report2 highlights that one in ten (11%) families eat separately, and almost a quarter (24%) eat together, but do so on the sofa while watching TV.
It may, however, not be the end of the road for the family dinner. Our report also revealed that more than a third (37%) of families still dine together at the dinner table on the majority of nights – underlining that old habits do, in fact, die hard.
Where and how are British families’ dining on the majority of nights?
Benefits of the family dinner
While it may be true that a number of obstacles can stand in the way of eating together at the table, a survey3 carried out earlier this year revealed that the majority of people (59%) think this is valuable time spent together. Aside from being a great chance to spend time together, family meals can also bring social, physical and psychological benefits.
Bridget Benelam, Senior Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, tells us that “eating together as a family provides the opportunity to have a balanced, healthy meal”, and adds that “some studies have suggested that family meals may be protective against childhood obesity and may help children to develop healthier eating patterns.”
Benelam indicates that family dinners also provide the chance “for children to learn how to eat with others and to enjoy the social side of eating.”
Food for thought
Research published in a paper titled ‘Mealtime talk that supports literacy development4, established that children who eat with their parents often, also tend to build a better vocabulary than those who do so less frequently. This is due to the fact that when children speak to their parents over dinner, they learn and use more words than those who don’t. In fact, the research found that young children learned 7 times more rare words at the dinner table than while being read bedtime storybooks.
Family dinners can also help children academically, with the research carried out by Columbia University indicating that children who eat with their family five or more times a week perform better in school5.
Gathering for dinner can also be an effective way of tackling an ongoing issue in the UK – growing waistlines. Our Health Check report indicated that almost one in ten (8%) children are either overweight or obese, while the proportion of parents who fall into these groups is a worrying 44%.
Studies6 carried out by the research team at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, have shown that children who dine with their parents are more likely to prefer healthier foods and, consequently, are less likely to be obese or overweight. This could also be due to the fact that, at home, portion sizes can be controlled more easily compared to those in restaurants or takeaways.
An added health benefit is that, in helping to cook and serve meals, children are exposed to larger varieties of foods – giving them additional options for meals and snacks later in life.
Safer and happier
With bullying, and more recently cyber-bullying, unfortunately being a reality for some children, eating together on a regular basis can be a good way of spotting and addressing issues such as these7. While more often than not it may be hard for parents to avoid their child being bullied, dining together is certainly a way of monitoring the situation.
According to research8 carried out with 5000 teenagers, regular family meals can lead to more mentally and emotionally strong children – with the research highlighting that participants who often ate with their family were less prone to suffering from depression and anxiety.
Families that eat together, stay together
Turns out, eating together can in fact strengthen family bonds – providing a time for the family to get together and share their thoughts. Researchers at the University of Florida found that regular family meals provide children with a sense of belonging and make them feel more secure9.
Making the most of dinner time
Family dinners don’t need to involve spending two hours in the kitchen, or need to be a Michelin star, gourmet meal. While each family has their own way of getting everyone to the dinner table, here are a few tips that could help you make the most of eating together:
- Eradicate any distractions, such as the TVs and phones. Not only does this promote conversation, but eating while distracted can result in overeating10, as you don’t realise when you’re full.
- Make the process fun. Allowing children to participate in the preparation of the meal can help teach them about healthy food options, and also gives them the valuable life skill of being able to cook.
- Take your time. Family meals are an opportunity to spend time together and shouldn’t be rushed. It’s not merely about the food, but more about the company.
- Make family meals a regular occurrence, and let everyone know what time dinner will be served and when they need to be home.
Gathering to eat as a family is an opportunity to come together and share stories, worries and joys. While some believe the tradition of the family meal is a dying one, the benefits these bring are far too valuable to let slip. Our Changing Households report11 indicated that – with multigenerational households on the rise in the UK – the majority (69%) of people believe the number one advantage of this living arrangement is the fact that there’s always someone around to talk to. This highlights just how important communication is within families, and how this time spent together is held in high regards by many.
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Additional SourcesBreakfast, lunch and dinner: Have we always eaten them? – BBC News Magazine (2002)
Aviva Health Check Report (2016), Death of the dinner table? (page 4) – conducted by ICM research in August 2015 for Aviva UK.
Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners – Jama Paediatrics (2014)
Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents – Jama Paediatrics (2004)
Family Nutrition: The Truth About Family Meals – University of Florida
 Aviva Changing Households Report (2016)