Social Value of Family Meals

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A Perspective on Family Meals
Do They Matter?
Mary Story, PhD, RD Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD

This article describes the social value of family meals and
the impact of family meals on children’s dietary quality, psychosocial health, and learning. Strategies for promoting family meals are presented.

Social Value of Family Meals
Anthropological studies clearly show that meals are vitally important symbols of social connections and are central to human communication.4 Sharing of food and mealtime eating is common to every human society. Historically, transactions surrounding food have been considered the glue of the social system, and mealtime is symbolic of social connections.4 Family meals are defined as eating food together and have long been considered essential for the unity of the family and a symbol for family interactions. MacKenzie4 notes that the family meal can be a code for communicating love, as well as information, and can provide opportunities for parents to give children attention, to talk and listen to them, to give them sociable experience in conversation, and teach manners. Family meals can also transmit cultural and ethnic heritage and serve as the basis of ‘‘food memories’’ formed in childhood and carried throughout life.4 The family meal can also be viewed in the context of family rituals. Rituals, defined as symbolic forms of communication continued over time in a systematic manner,5 provide an index to the level of a family’s integration. Family rituals consist of celebrations, traditions, and family interactions and are important to families because they reinforce family identity, give all members a shared sense of belonging, and transmit family values, attitudes, culture, and goals. Rituals also provide a sense of structure. Rituals can be particularly important to young children because they provide a sense of security and a sense of how families work together.4 In our society, families have to work hard to keep rituals relevant and alive.5 Meals provide opportunities for families to establish regular traditions and rituals and provide a sense of unity, consistency, and routine for children. Because food is such a powerful 261


tudies consistently show that most US children do not consume a diet that meets the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. National survey data show that among school-aged children, only 2% meet the dietary recommendations for all food groups.1 Less than one-third of children meet the recommendations for specific food groups: 14% for fruits, 20% for vegetables, 23% for grains, and 30% for milk. Children’s diets are high in added sugars, contributing a mean of 20% of total food energy.1 Few children meet the recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, fiber, and sodium. Moreover, dietary quality declines from childhood to adolescence, with teenage girls being especially at high risk of having low vitamin and mineral intakes.1 Obesity is a major public health concern; in the past two decades, childhood obesity has doubled and adolescent obesity has tripled.2 With the rise of obesity in American youth, national attention has been drawn to improving the diets of children and adolescents. One important factor influencing children’s eating practices is the family.3 Families in today’s society lead busy lives with many time demands. It is widely believed that the time-honored family meal is becoming less important and is occurring less often. The purpose of this article is to provide a perspective on the social value of family meals, and the impact of family meals on children’s dietary quality, psychosocial health, and learning. Strategies for promoting family meals will also be discussed. Nutrition Today, Volume 40

Number 6


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A Perspective on Family Meals

metaphor for love, sharing meals...
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