You Can Thank Mom for More than the Meal Itself: Family Dinner Matters

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we have a great opportunity to express gratitude toward our moms, and other important women in our lives, for so much.

I feel blessed to have an extremely loving, caring mom who supported me in endless ways – she cleaned up scraped knees, taught me to be kind to others, drove me to countless practices and events, loved me unconditionally (and still does!), and always made sure there was a good dinner on the table.

Turns out, I could have been thanking Mom for much more than the meal itself.  The compilation of research in this blog, which is part of our Smart Parents series, underscores the fact that there are enduring benefits stemming from family dinner that go far beyond the meal.

Also recently shared as part of the series was a piece by Alfred Binford, outlining the fact that more families are taking time to gather for dinner.  That’s great news, and keep reading to find out why, and also for some practical tips and table questions.

Not surprisingly so, a commitment to family dinner starts with Mom’s beliefs and attitudes towards it, and the benefits follow.

It Starts with Mom

Mom’s attitude toward meals matter. While not surprising, mothers’ attitudes toward and beliefs about meals matter. According to a group of Texas A&M researchers who published the report Mothers and Meals, when Mom believes dinner is important, so do kids. This report showed a ripple effect – when moms are committed to a family meal, they are more likely to plan for and schedule it and, in turn, children (and spouses) are more likely to show up and participate in the meals. Interestingly, whether the mom was employed didn’t matter (and thank goodness, nor did it matter if it was a from-scratch meal), so long as she found ways not be too stressed about planning the meal. Yes, we can give ourselves permission to make it easy, ask others to help, and take advantage of take-out options!

Relationship with mom matters. A report published by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that teens who had frequent family dinners (5+ per week) were more likely to report having “high-quality relationships” with their parents. This relationship benefit carried over into other important behaviors. Compared to teens who said they had an “excellent relationship with their mothers,” teens that had a “less than very good relationship” with their mother were almost 3 times likelier to have used marijuana, 2.5 times as likely to have used alcohol, and 2.5 times likelier to have used tobacco. There are numerous reports that strongly link family dinners to teen substance use prevention. The impact is even stronger when dad is present for meals, too.

The Benefits are Many

The number of studies on the benefits of family meals are too numerous to list. The Purdue University Center for Families shares a helpful way to remember the benefits by using the acronym SUCCESS – we have adapted it, added to it, pointed towards the studies, and shared some of our own learnings.

Smarter Children. Various studies have shown academic benefits, including:

  • Improved vocabularies and reading skills. Catherine Snow of Harvard Graduate School of Education looked at how mealtime conversations play a critical role in language acquisition in young children. The discourse at dinner provides even more vocabulary context than when reading them. Improved vocabulary skills lead to better readers.
  • Greater academic achievement. A Reader’s Digest survey of more than 2,000 high-school seniors compared academic achievement with family characteristics. Eating meals with their family was a stronger predictor of academic success than whether they lived with one or both parents. Share that with families who may not have money or education or a spouse, but do have it in their power to eat with their kids!
  • Higher grades. A series of reports on family dinner by CASA Columbia, have found striking relationships between frequency of family meals and grades. According to one of CASA’s reports, teens who have daily dinners with their family are almost 40% more likely to report receiving “mostly As and Bs” in school compared to teens who have dinner with their family two or fewer times per week.
  • Unlikely (or at least less likely) to smoke, drink or take drugs. In addition to the benefits mentioned in the relationship section regarding CASA’s findings of reduced use of marijuana and tobacco, teens who eat frequent family dinners are also less likely than other teens to have sex at young ages and get into fights; they are at lower risk for thoughts of suicide; and are more likely to do better in school. This is true regardless of a teen’s gender, family structure, or family socioeconomic level.

Further, Dr. Blake Bowden of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, looked at what family and lifestyle characteristics were related to good mental health and adjustment. He found that kids who ate dinner with their families at least five times per week were the least likely to take drugs, feel depressed or get into trouble.

Courteous and Conversational. Family meals are a training ground to learn manners, skills, and how to have pleasant conversations  It’s at the family table that we learn to talk, learn to behave, to take turns, be polite, not to interrupt, how to share, and how to entertain – good lessons for success in life!

Connecting to Family. Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to be emotionally content, work hard at school, and have positive peer relationships, not to mention healthier eating habits. A study by the Kraft Company found that American families who eat together are happier in many aspects of their lives than those who don’t. Children and teens who eat family meals together experience improved family communication, have stronger family ties and a greater sense of belonging.

Eating Better. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota, published the results of their Project EAT studies (standing for Eating Among Teens) in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Their findings showed a dramatic relationship between family meal patterns and dietary intake in adolescents. They found that family meals were associated with improved intakes of fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, protein, iron, fiber, and vitamins. Family meals were also associated with a lower intake of soft-drinks and snack foods.

Sharing food and conversation at meals. Parents can model healthy eating behaviors and a healthy relationship with food and eating. Eating can be a focused activity if phones are silent and TVs are off.  Family meals promote a sense of belonging and lower the risk for loneliness-induced eating for comfort.

Strengthening families. An NPR podcast The Family Dinner Deconstructed identified there are three important factors that needed to be present in order to show benefits such as improved management of asthma and ADHD: 1) assigned roles (who sets the table), 2) a genuine concern in each other’s activities, and 3) the meal being conducted in a way that supports healthy development.

5 Ways to Make Meals Happen

Here are 5 tips for making it happen. We’ve integrated practical and research-based, with several of these coming from a Cornell University study:

  1. Set a goal. Most research notes some type of improvement in child outcomes when a family participated in at least three family meals together each week.
  2.  Be flexible. As is the case for so many, with three involved kids in our household, sometimes we need to make it “family bedtime snack” or family breakfast.
  3. Don’t stress. Even when mealtimes feel hectic or disorganized, take comfort in the fact that the simple act of regular mealtimes may be providing your child with stability.
  4.  Focus on the benefits. Reminding ourselves of the research can help us stress less and remember the big picture.
  5.  Quality matters. Mealtimes have been noted as one of the most common times children communicate with parents, so if possible, guard your mealtimes from outside distractions. Turn off the TV and cell phones and engage with each other.

We’re at the Table, Now What?

Dinner conversations don’t have to be complex. Here are a few discussion starters:

  • What was something interesting you did or learned today? Note increased specificity from typical “how was school today?”
  • Can you describe your donut and your skunk? This is another way to ask what was your best/most challenging part of the day
  • What would you do if….? Pose a moral dilemma, such as what you’d do if you found money on the street
  • What are you grateful today? A focus on gratitude improves overall well-being
  • For more questions, a quick web search can help, or make a small investment in a product such as this handy jar of questions.

In closing, I’d like to share an important lesson I learned when studying in Scandinavia during college. In a literal sense, the phrase “Tack for maten” means “thanks for the food” but in practice it represents a more holistic, “Thank you for the overall meal experience.”

Tack for maten, Mom!


This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

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