Salud to Family Mealtime


As a pediatrician in a busy suburban office, I see an increasing number of adolescents and teenagers with mental illness. Rates of anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders have doubled over the last thirty years as teenagers tend to deal with more stress, demands, and peer pressure. At the same time, studies of American families show a decline in meals eaten at home as a family.

Is there a connection?

Less than half of North American families eat dinner together regularly, this having declined by 33% over the last twenty years. Increasingly busy work schedules and a growing number of families in which both parents work have resulted in the rising trend of frequent dining out. This pattern could be responsible for significantly affecting family dynamics. 

While it is certainly possible to eat out together as a family, restaurants are often very noisy and not conducive to easy communication and family bonding.

 A family meal is the perfect time to communicate and share the struggles and triumphs that challenge our daily lives. This is also a time to reveal concerns, air grievances, and ask for help when needed, creating an environment that is optimal for mental health.

Family meals allow parents to talk with their children in a relaxed, stress-free environment and show them that they love and care for them. Kids have an opportunity to express their thoughts and opinions, making them feel confident and important at home, even if that’s not the case at school. In turn, family meals give parents the opportunity to learn to know and trust their children better.

Furthermore, teens who eat family dinners more than 3 times a week are more likely to eat healthily and less likely to be overweight. They perform better academically and have more trusting and healthy relationships with one another and with their parents. They have fewer emotional and behavioral problems and are less likely to indulge in risky behaviors.

In addition to the impact that dining out can have on a family’s health and well-being, people who habitually eat out may also feel the burden in their wallets. The average American spends half of their food budget on meals prepared outside the home. Americans are eating out more than ever before, now ingesting more than one-third of their calories from food prepared at restaurants. This is almost double that of thirty years ago. More than half eat out three or more times a week, and 12% eat out seven or more times a week.

What is the reason for this trend? Today, more people have less time for food preparation due to longer commutes, working spouses, and decreased cooking knowledge.

In addition to the social, financial, and mental health repercussions, meals outside the home tend to be higher in calories, fat, sugar, and salt,  creating a recipe for potential weight gain.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 68% of Americans are overweight and over one-third are obese. Twenty percent of children (6-11 years old) and eighteen percent of teens are obese.

The diminishing trend of family dinners seems to coincide with the rise in eating out and the increasing incidence of anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders.

Imagine sitting down and connecting with your spouse and children in a positive and meaningful way on a regular basis. This is likely to result in not only healthier relationships, better grades, and reduced smoking, alcohol, and drug use, but also a revelation of the supreme importance of family.

Family meals are vitally important to our mental health. Carving out dedicated family meal times can have significant rewards in the long run. Eating in can provide additional benefits to our health and nutrition. Combine the two for the ultimate recipe for good health – BON APPETIT!