With life’s busy schedule, many may assume regular family dinners are largely a thing of the past. But new research from family scholars indicates that getting the family together around the dinner table to enjoy a meal flavored with unrushed conversations is still a very good idea.

Scholars at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) examined the academic research on the importance of family dinners over the last few decades and conclude family dinners “offer an especially valuable chance for family members to come together to share the day’s highs and lows, discuss personal issues, current events, and big questions of the day, and generally enjoy each other’s company.”

This dedicated time together yields real, measurable benefits for your children. IFS states, “Some research even finds that frequently eating meals with family members can reduce a child’s likelihood of substance use, violence, and other anti-social behaviors later in life.”

Researchers at the The Family Dinner Project.org add to this, explaining “Over three decades of research have shown that regular family meals offer a wide variety of physical, social-emotional and academic benefits” to children. They found kids who live in homes that enjoy regular family dinners are more likely to experience:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
  • Lower rates of obesity
  • Better cardiovascular health as teens
  • Bigger vocabulary in preschoolers
  • Healthier eating patterns for young adults

Family dinners also benefit mom and dad, resulting in,

  • Less unhealthy dieting
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Better connections as a couple and with their children

Additional research sources support these conclusions.

But how many families take advantage of this rich familial benefit? The data is conflicting, depending on source.

The scholars at IFS tell us “A comprehensive look at more than 40 years of data shows that the share of American families eating dinner together has held remarkably constant, after a decline during the 1980s and early 1990s.”

However, there is a gap in how many meals low and high socioeconomic status families share together, with poorer, less educated families being less likely to do so.

In fact, data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), a longitudinal look at how Americans spend their time, shows family dinner time has actually increased a bit of late, but less so for families with only a high school education or less. These differences are demonstrated in the following chart.

“The ATUS data show that, if anything, eating family dinners has become slightly more common since 2003,” IFS explains.

However, Daniel Cox at the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life comes to a very different conclusion. He notes that family dinners together have declined significantly over the generations, as demonstrated in the following chart.

Cox explains,

A generation ago, family meals were routine. Roughly three-quarters of baby boomers (76 percent) and 84 percent of Americans who belong to the silent generation report that they had meals together as a family every day. Fifty-nine percent of Americans who belong to Generation X say they had daily meals with their family. In contrast, less than half of millennials (46 percent) and Generation Z (38 percent) report that growing up they had meals with their family every day.

The difference in these two conflicting measures is the time measurement. Cox is measuring daily meals while IFS is measuring dinners taken many times a week.

But regardless of the optimistic or pessimistic view one takes on the frequency of family meals enjoyed together, the benefits derived from taking time out of a busy schedule to sit down together and eat as a family are rich and generally well-documented.

Additional Resources

The Benefits of Family Meals and How to Make Them

Enjoying Mealtime as a Family

Homemade Meals for Busy Families

Dinner: Nourish Your Family … As a Family

Ideas for Simple and Budget-Friendly Meals at Home


Image from Shutterstock.