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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Celebrate National Family Day with a family dinner

by Carol Danaher, MPH, RD

A family meal is when you all down together, facing each other, and share the same food, no matter what you eat. Following the division of responsibility in feeding helps keep family meals pleasant. Teens having frequent family dinners (5-7 per week) have better relationships with their parents, experience less stress, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Younger children who have family meals have higher nutrient intakes and lower risk of obesity and eating disorders. They even get better grades!  

A shared passion

I am passionate about family mealtimes. I’ve enjoyed them in my role as wife, mother, sister, friend, and daughter, and encouraged others to do likewise as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and faculty member of Ellyn Satter Institute. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia) is also passionate about family mealtime. But why would a research and policy center on addiction and drug abuse share this passion? Because they know how important family mealtime is to the well-being of children. 

CASAColumbia on family dinner  

Each year, CASAColumbia publishes “The Importance of Family Dinners,” a nationally representative survey of American adolescents that looks at the complex relationship between family dinner, parental engagement, and adolescent behavior. In their 2012 survey, teens having frequent family dinners (5-7 per week) had better relationships with their parents and experienced less stress. Family dinners were strongly linked to substance use prevention for those teens. Teens with fewer than 3 family meals per week were:

  • Almost 3 times likelier to have used marijuana
  • Twice as likely to have used alcohol
  • 2.5 times as likely to have used tobacco
  • Twice as likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future.  

Benefits of family meals

Parent perception that a family meal had to be home-cooked and “healthy” became a barrier to having them. In the words of one parent: “when I cook we eat together but when we have fast food we don’t.”

Research with preschoolers and school-aged children show other benefits of having more than 3 meals per week:

  • Higher nutrient intakes1
  • Greater intake of fruits and vegetables2
  • Reduced odds of obesity3
  • Reduced odds of eating unhealthy foods2
  • Less disordered eating behaviors2
  • Better grades4

The benefits are stronger when children have 5 or more family meals per week.5 Benefits are independent of measures of family connectedness.4

What is a family meal?  

These powerful benefits make it easy to find support for family meals. Parents recognize its value in building relationships. Our federal food programs, WIC, CACFP, and SNAP recommend family meals, and we certainly do at ESI. Where agreement is lacking is in how to best promote family mealtime and what constitutes a family meal. According to ESI, a family meal is defined by environment, relationship, and engagement. Not nutritional value. A family meal is when people:

  • Sit down and face each other
  • Share the same food
  • Have a pleasant time together
  • Turn off the television and other electronics

ESI emphasizes practicality  

By taking the nutrition policy stipulation of “eat healthy food” out of the definition, ESI’s guidelines dignify whatever a family eats: pizza, take-out Chinese or other fast food, reheated left-overs, or a home-cooked meal. This is important. A 2013 study6 of dual and single headed families identified barriers to having family meals as: time needed to prepare the meal, cost of healthy food, lack of ideas of what to serve, and picky eaters. Parent perception that a family meal had to be home-cooked and “healthy” became a barrier to having them. In the words of one parent: “when I cook we eat together but when we have fast food we don’t.” Children benefit from family meals no matter what is served. Parents have gotten the idea that fast food doesn’t merit family time. What a shame.

Educating parents in how to have family meals, not what to serve, would help reduce other barriers. In a 2013 study,7 a group of low-income mothers reported that their own childhood inexperience with family meals and their child’s mealtime behavior were barriers to having family meals. According to the authors, these parents were motivated to have family meals, but “…the demands of meal preparation and managing children’s behaviors made it hard for mothers to achieve their aspiration of bonding with their children during mealtimes…”

Emphasize how, not what  

Next time, before you recommend nutritious family meals to clients, I challenge you to read, or re-read, Mastering Meals Step-by-step. This curriculum relies on the principles of Satter’s paradigm-changing Hierarchy of food needs. Mastering Meals, starts with structure, and gives parents permission to get into the meal habit starting with whatever they are eating now. ESI trusts that parents will gradually progress through the steps of the hierarchy, to eventually increase dietary variety, and consider nutrition in their meal planning. Parents also need to learn about Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR) in order to resolve child mealtime misbehavior and to learn how to parent during mealtime.


  1. Larson NI, Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M. Family meals during adolescence are associated with higher diet quality and healthful meal patterns during young adulthood. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107:1502-1510.

  2. Hammons, A and Fiese B.; Is Frequency of Shared Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2011;127(6); e1565-e1574.
  3. Anderson, S and Whitaker, R. Household Routines and Obesity in US Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics. 2010; 125(3); 420-428.
  4. Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Arch Pediat Adol Med. 2004;158:792–796.
  5. CASAColumbia White Paper. The Importance of Family Dinners VIII; 2012.
  6. Berge, J. M., Hoppmann, C., Hanson, C., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. Perspectives about family meals from single-headed and dual-headed households: a qualitative analysis. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(12), 1632-1639.
  7. Malhotra, K., Herman, A. N., Wright, G., Bruton, Y., Fisher, J. O., & Whitaker, R. C. Perceived benefits and challenges for low-income mothers of having family meals with preschool-aged children: childhood memories matter. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(11), 1484-1493.

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