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For any parent feeling exhausted from cooking, cleaning, and planning a million meals during the pandemic, there is some good news. Commensality, or sharing food with others, has a positive effect on your physical and mental health.
Most parents already know that family meals are good for the body, brain, and mental health of children. More than two decades of studies show that children who eat with their families do better in school and have greater vocabulary. They also have lower rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, along with healthier diets and better cardiovascular health.
But what may seem like unexpected news to distressed parents is that the same meals together are good for adults too. Throughout life, from young parents who eat with toddlers to parents who talk to their school-age children about strategies for coping with pandemics, and Medicare-eligible adults who eat with younger generations, meals are shared with them associated with healthier eating and better mood.
Healthy for all adults, but especially for parents
For adults, both with and without children, eating with others offers numerous health benefits. Even unrelated adults like firefighters have improved team performance by cooking and eating together while waiting for the call to action.
On the flip side, researchers have found that eating alone is linked to an increased likelihood of skipping meals and the downstream effects – lower nutrient intake, reduced energy levels, and poorer nutritional health.
Regardless of parental status, adults who eat with others tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food than those who eat alone. Even if a home cook isn't particularly focused on healthy cooking, home-cooked meals reduce the likelihood of adults becoming obese. Large portion sizes, the hug of fried food, and a heavy hand with butter are more common in a restaurant than a civilian kitchen.
Adults who park their plates in front of the TV may have a greater chance of weight gain, as is evidence from the US, Sweden, Finland, and Portugal showing the link between obesity and children's dinner while watching TV.
In addition to these benefits of dining with others, there are additional benefits for adults who eat with their children – and they affect mothers and fathers alike. Having children present at mealtimes allows parents to eat healthier, perhaps to model good behavior and provide their children with the best possible nutrition. When there is a lot of conversation with children, the pace of eating slows down so the diners' brains can register the abundance and signal that it is time to stop eating.
For children, eating more family meals is associated with lower obesity rates. Eating with others, however, does not correlate with decreased weight gain in adults – unless their meal companions include children. Parents who dine with their children also tend to report fewer diets and binge eating. Parents can recall some of these destructive behaviors knowing their children are watching and willing to emulate them.
Despite all the work, a boost to mental health
It may seem counterintuitive that a process that requires so much time and resources – the energy to plan, shop, prepare, serve, and tidy up food – can also lead to improved mental health. Much more obvious is how children would benefit if their parents demonstrated their love and care by offering evening dinners.
However, researchers have found that frequent family meals are linked to better mental health for both mothers and fathers, even though mothers bear a greater share of the food-preparation burden. Compared to parents who rarely ate family meals, parents who ate regularly with their children reported higher levels of family functionality, higher self-esteem, and lower levels of depressive symptoms and stress.
And the mental health benefits don't depend on a slow-roasted pork shoulder or organic vegetables. Since it is the atmosphere at the dining table that contributes most to emotional well-being, take-away or home-prepared meals also work well.
In a previous study of parents of infants and young children, couples who put more emphasis and importance on family meals were more satisfied with their marital relationship. It is unclear in which direction the causality is going. Is it that those in more satisfying marriages tend to create daily rituals? Or that performing daily rituals leads to more robust relationships? In either case, establishing meaningful rituals like eating together in the early stages of parenting can create some predictability and routine in a time of life that can be very busy and fragmented.
Just like children, family dinner is the most reliable time of the day for adults to slow down and talk to others. It's a time to step away from video calls, emails, and to-do lists and connect in person instead. Meal time often allows for a few laughs, a time to decompress and also to solve logistical problems and to talk about the events of the day and the future.
Family meals are a habit from COVID-19
For parents who have the long run, there is another perk to family dining. If teens grow up with regular family meals, they are much more likely to repeat this practice in their own homes when they become parents. Adults who reported having six to seven family meals a week as children often had family meals with their own children. The family meal and its benefits can be an heirloom that you pass on to future generations.
However, the common meal time is not equally accessible to everyone. Frequent family meals are more common among white Americans, those with a higher level of education, married people, and those with household incomes of the middle class or above. While the overall frequency of family meals in the US remained fairly constant from 1999 to 2010, it decreased significantly in low-income families (47% to 39%), while it increased in high-income families (57% to 61%). This gap can be understood in terms of structural differences: low-income parents often have less control over their working hours and may have to do more than one job to make ends meet.
As people are now tiptoeing back to more expansive lives, many are pondering what they learned during the pandemic and what might be worth holding onto. There is evidence that more families ate more meals together than ever before during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some families who did not have a priority dining together prior to the pandemic may emerge from the past year with a new appreciation for the joys of commensality. Of course, others can already bookmark all of their favorite restaurants to have chefs cook for them after feeling exhausted from so much housework.
But parents may want to remind themselves that science suggests that meal times together are good for the mental and physical health of every family member. If after the final year of loss, disorder, and anxiety people begin to heal, why not continue to use nutritional practices that are helpful for all? In my family therapy practice, it will be a top recommendation.
The study shows that pandemic stress affects the diet of children through their parents
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Family meals are good for the adults too, not just the kids (2021 April 30)
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