The evidence is too powerful to overlook.
“It is compelling research,” says Dr. Anne K. Fishel, clinical psychologist and family therapist. based in Boston, MA. “It’s 25 years of dozens and dozens of studies that show when families have dinner together, it’s great for the body, the brain, and the mental health of kids and adolescents. And it also turns out that family meal time is also good for the mental health and nutrition of adults.”
Dr. Fishel knows first-hand the power of the family meal.
“Family dinner was very important, growing up.” Dr. Fishel told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “It is one of the few rituals that my family of origin really devoted themselves to. We didn’t do birthdays much, we didn’t do other kinds of holidays in our home, but we really did family dinner and there was lots of lively, interesting conversation.”
The research findings around the physical, mental and social benefits of family meals range from better communication skills, more healthy eating habits, improved self-esteem and less behavioural problems at school. The science is even more impactful for teens and youth.
In some ways, teens have the most to gain from family dinner,” says Dr. Fishel, who is also an author and a mother of two adult sons. “If you think about how family dinner is so protective of several high-risk behaviours that teens are most susceptible to, like substance abuse and tobacco use and eating disorders and depression and anxiety, I really try to stress when I’m seeing families as a therapist, to encourage, really encourage and expect their teenagers to join them at dinner.”
A 2018 study in JAMA Network Open found mealtimes eaten with family members correlates to a better overall diet — particularly among adolescents.
Researchers at the Universite de Montreal conducted a study in which they followed a cohort of children from infancy to childhood. They found kids whose families experienced positive mealtimes at age six, showed continued positive physical and mental health benefits at age 10. The results were published in a 2017 Science Daily interview.
As a child herself, Dr. Fishel was moved by the impact of family dinners in her own home. She took those mealtime memories, added a heaping helping of scientific findings and, in 2010, served up The Family Dinner Project.
“I co-founded [it] in order to make it more accessible, more doable, easier, more meaningful for more families, to be able to enjoy family dinner, to make the simple idea, an easier one,” says Fishel, who is Associate clinical professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Family and couples therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The Family Dinner Project provides information, recipes, resources and ideas to help support parents engage in meals together with their families. In addition to the online resources, the initiative also has an in-person component.
“One thing we’ll do in the workshops is talk about some other ways to get kids to talk,” says Dr. Fishel. “You know, let’s go around the table and say a rose a thorn and a bud about our day. Now a rose was something positive, a thorn was something unpleasant or challenging and a bud is something you hope will happen tomorrow.”
During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Anne Fishel also discusses:
- The scientific findings around the impact of family dinners on kids of all ages
- The impetus for The Family Dinner Project
- Tips for conversation at mealtime
- Finding ways to incorporate a family meal into busy schedules
- Strategies to address unique family situations or kids with behavioural issues at the family dinner table