Talking about family meals and togetherness, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “At the table we talk, at the table we listen.” It’s time to take this to heart if you aren’t already as recent research shows that our children are getting more than full tummies from family meals. According to a study from the Université de Montréal in Canada, children who regularly eat with their family are better at getting along with others and are more physically fit.
“The presence of parents during mealtimes likely provides young children with firsthand social interaction, discussions of social issues and day-to-day concerns, and vicarious learning of prosocial interactions,” said study co-author Linda Pagani, a pyschoeducation professor.
For the study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Pagani and doctoral student Marie-Josée Harbec followed children born in 1997 and 1998 starting at the age of 5 months. Their parents then started reporting on their family mealtime habits when the kids were 6 years old. By the time the kids were 10, information on their lifestyle habits and psycho-social well-being were collected from parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.
Children who had meals with their family at age 6 had higher levels of fitness and drank less softdrinks at age 10 compared to those who didn't eat with mom and dad. It’s a finding that supports past research on the same subject as homemade meals are generally healthier — a.k.a. contain less fat, salt, and caloric content — than food at restaurants and fast-food places.
Preschoolers who grew up having family meals together also “seemed to have more social skills, as they were less likely to self-report being physical aggressive, oppositional or delinquent at age 10,” said the study's news release.
Pagani described the family meal as “a familiar and emotionally secure setting.” It’s a loving environment where everyone’s free to talk and share. The takeaways on positive communication may then carry over to how the child interacts with others even years later, explained Pagani.
“From a population-health perspective, our findings suggest that family meals have long-term influences on children's physical and mental well-being,” said Harbec.
Experts have, time and time again, advocated family meals as opportunities to support a child’s development and well-being.
“When kids are part of a family unit that spends time together, they are more likely to feel supported, safe, and loved unconditionally. This holds true for kids of all ages and in all kinds of families,” according to Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University in her co-authored book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.
In an article on The Atlantic, writer Cody C. Delistraty cited a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often.”