Family mealtime, without TV, makes for healthier families

child eating

New research shows having the TV on during mealtime is disruptive to the family.

One of my favorite TV shows ever is The Middle. The mom, Frankie Heck (played by Patricia Heaton), is a lower middle-class mom who is always coming up with ideas on how to bring her family closer together. The family always eats dinner while watching TV. One day, Frankie turns off the TV and demands that the family sit down together at the table so they can talk and get to know each other during dinner. The kids freak out. They think the parents are going to get a divorce because the family only sits down together when there is big news to share. When Frankie tries to get her kids to share a compliment about the person to their left, the teenage son says to the teenage daughter, “Your head is basically the right size for your body.”

Yes, family mealtime can be hard to pull off. But a decade of research shows that eating dinner together as a family has a long list of benefits, including better health and better school performance. With growing kids, finding time to sit down and eat a meal together is becoming increasingly hard. Track practice. Dance rehearsals. Piano lessons. Life is just busy sometimes. I’m guessing our family eats dinner together 2-3 times a week, at most. While that’s not nearly as often as we’d like, new research shows that there’s something we can do to make the most of those times when we do.

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 278 parents of preschoolers and found that having the TV on during family mealtime was related to less regular or ritualized mealtimes and to children eating fewer fruits and vegetables. In other words, when the TV is on, both the regularity of family mealtime and eating healthy foods become less important.

These findings suggest several important lessons for parents. First, having meals together as a family might lead to improved family well-being simply because sitting around a table doing something enjoyable like eating can lead to more positive family communication. TV can disrupt that communication. And second, when mealtimes are planned around the family, and not around the TV, families tend to eat healthier.

Hearing this may have prompted a desire in you to try turning off the TV during dinner, like Frankie Heck, while full well knowing that doing so might incite a mutiny in your household. Sometimes, implementing a wholesale change like suddenly turning the TV off during all meals is just too much to ask. I get it. Perhaps, though, doing so just one night a week for starters will be enough to get the family communication and healthy eating rolling.

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