Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) spend a great deal of clinical time implementing health-promotion and disease-prevention strategies with individuals across the life span. Frequent gatherings around the family table can help achieve these goals: People who participate in frequent family meals are more likely to get healthy and stay healthy. 


Dinnertime with the family has declined drastically since the 1960s. The family meal has been replaced by eating alone, “grazing” (eating smaller meals throughout the day rather than a few big meals at set times), and eating while watching television, working on the computer or driving. 


Research has identified that frequent family meals often yield the following benefits for the children and adolescents in the family:


  • Language development and academic success (better school grades)1
  • Healthy food selections (less soda, more fruits and vegetables)2
  • Demonstration of positive values (commitment to learning, social competencies, and positive sense of identity)3
  • Avoidance of high-risk behaviors in teens (lower incidence of substance abuse, sexual activity, depression/suicide, antisocial behaviors, violence, school problems, binge eating/purging, and excessive weight loss).3

Many parents believe that youths do not enjoy eating meals with their families. However, one study showed that 79% of teens researched did enjoy this ritual.4

Youths are not the only ones who benefit from family meals; parents do as well. According to research, when parents’ employment interfered with family mealtime, they reported a greater sense of dissatisfaction with their jobs and careers.5 These parents also reported fewer feelings of success at work when they missed dinnertime with their families. 


Conversely, ­parents who enjoyed consistent family mealtimes indicated greater job satisfaction and reported a closer relationship with their children and spouses.5

The protective benefits of consistent family meals for single-parent families are similar to those seen in two-parent households. The importance of encouraging this ritual in single-parent families should not be overlooked. 


NPs and PAs are in a position to assess family-meal frequency and educate patients on the numerous benefits of healthful, consistent family meals. Communicating to patients the value of this practice may inspire the return of dinner to the family table. Family meals do make a difference for the entire family! 


Sharon Fruh, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, an associate professor at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing in Mobile, does research on family meals in health-disparity populations.

References


  1. Snow CE, Beals DE. Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. 2006;111:51-66.

  2. Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M, et al. Family meal patterns: associations with sociodemographic characteristics and improved dietary intake among adolescents. 
J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103:317-322.

  3. Fulkerson JA, Story M, Mellin A, et al. Family dinner meal frequency and adolescent development: relationships with developmental assets and high-risk behaviors. J Adolesc Health. 2006;39:337-345.

  4. Zollo P. Wise Up to Teens: Insights into Marketing and Advertising to Teenagers. 2nd ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: New Strategist Publication; 1999.

  5. Jacob JI, Allen S, Hill EJ, et al. Work interference with dinnertime as a mediator and moderator between work hours and work and family outcomes. Fam Consum Sci Res J. 2008;36:310-327.