Once upon a time, the family dinner was an institution. In the mid-twentieth century, it was the norm for everyone to gather around the table every night to share a home-cooked meal. But over the decades, that Norman Rockwell-esque scene has become the exception rather than the rule. Today's typical dinner is more of a drive-by affair, often involving more carryout than cooking. We eat fast and furious, sometimes while riding in cars, standing at counters or staring at our phones.
An NPR poll of children found that about half of their families don't regularly eat dinner together at home. Whether it's due to lack of time, lack of interest or lack of planning, bypassing a shared meal could come at a high price. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to bring the family dinner back to the table.
1. Family dinners create happier kids.
Got a grumpy eye-roller on your hands? Wish your stonewalling teenager would open up about what's going on in his life? Want to help build your kids' confidence, kindness and coping skills? The recipe for a happier, better-adjusted child could be as simple as eating at home more often.
According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, "More frequent family dinners are related to fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors towards others and higher life satisfaction." These results were consistent across all age groups and income levels.
2. Family dinners could reduce the risk of childhood obesity.
Could sharing a daily meal with your kids help keep obesity away? It's likely, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Families who consistently had dinner together reported a lower percentage of overweight or obese adolescents. This was likely due to several factors, including the higher nutritional value of the meals, the stronger relationships being built among family members and the positive parental examples for healthy eating.
The correlation makes sense. After all, if you're providing your child with a home-cooked dinner, you have the power to ensure that her plate is filled with healthy foods (and the right amounts of them), which is more than you could expect from high-calorie, super-sized restaurant meals.
And it doesn't have to be all or nothing—every meal counts. "A study in Minnesota found that young adults in families that ate just one to two dinners together per week had a 45 percent reduced risk of being overweight as adults," says Lisa C. Andrews, owner and nutrition consultant at Sound Bites Nutrition.
3. Saying "yes" to family dinners could help teens say "no" to risky behavior.
According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens whose families ate together five to seven nights each week were more likely to have positive relationships with their parents—and the higher the quality of those relationships, the less likely they were to use marijuana and tobacco, drink alcohol or engage in sexual activity.
"Having regular family dinners can help parents stay abreast of what's going on in their children’s lives and maintain a healthy relationship with them," says Toby Amidor, nutrition expert and author.
4. Your budget will thank you.
Although there are some exceptions, in most cases you'll spend significantly less to prepare a meal at home than you would to purchase it at a restaurant. Some estimates say you'll save anywhere from $6 to $11 per person for each meal cooked at home. Many times your money will go considerably further—in terms of both nutrition and quantity—at the grocery store than at restaurants.
When you eat more family dinners at home, you'll have more disposable income to go toward vacations, college funds or savings accounts.
5. It's your chance to role-model healthy eating.
Kids mimic what they see adults doing. If you're eating fast food in front of the TV most nights, they'll associate that with normal eating habits. But if they see you preparing a variety of nutritious meals and engaging in mindful eating at the table without electronic distractions, they'll be likely to assume those healthy behaviors as adults.
"Family dinner is a great time to introduce new foods, when the children can see the adults eating and enjoying the new food," says Tricia Silverman, registered dietitian with NuTricia's Lifestyles.
6. Food prep becomes a fun bonding experience.
When picking up takeout or eating at a restaurant, there's no visibility into what went into preparing the food. But when you make dinners at home, you have an opportunity to involve the whole family in the process—and the payoff will be a lot more than full bellies. As you chop, measure, stir and sample together, you'll have all the ingredients for a stronger family bond.
"It's a great time to slow down, tune into the food and each other and show gratitude for the food and the company," says Silverman.
Silverman's family recently did a "pizza-off" family dinner, which was a taste test of her husband’s homemade pizza and her son’s pizza recipe from his summer cooking class. "What bloomed out of this family dinner and tasting event was that both of my children were willing to try the pizza sauce on other foods—broccoli and chicken," she says. "They both thought they didn’t like sauce before this. Now a whole new world of food has opened up because they now understand that sauce can enhance the flavor of other foods."
Another idea for an interactive family meal is a taco bar, which is something you could easily do with your family. In addition to the fun factor, this type of DIY setup—which can also apply to salads, sandwiches and potatoes—also increases the likelihood that kids will eat their own creations.
7. It creates a sense of tradition.
When your grown-up kids look back on their childhoods, do you want them to remember all the times you brought home pizza or Chinese food, or would you rather they remember the meals you lovingly prepared for (and with) them? Every time you sit down at the table for dinner, you're creating a memory that will set the precedent for how they'll eat with their own families.
There's no denying that family life is far different than it was before the age of smartphones, overstuffed sports schedules and primarily dual-income households—but that doesn't mean you should throw in the kitchen towel. Making time to cook meals can improve the health of our bodies, our budgets and our family bonds, all good reasons to trade takeout for taco night.
"While it may not be realistic for busy families to have dinner together every night, the goal should be to make family meals more of a priority, so that at least some meals can be eaten together each week," says Silverman.