When kids eat meals with their families, they're just better off. They eat more vegetables and fewer trans fats. They're less likely to dabble in drugs and alcohol and more likely to do well in school. And they have a lower risk of eating disorders and depression. But where your family eats those meals matters too—and it turns out, staying home rules. Here's why:
More Nutrients, Less Calories
One obvious reason: Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier than restaurant food. Researchers have found that food away from home contains fewer fruits and vegetables and has more calories, fat, and sodium than food made at home. But, Americans love to eat out (in 2010, we ate more food out and about than at home!). "This is very concerning given that dietary habits are established at a young age," says Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., a professor of consumer and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies family meals.
"Children who experience more food away from home early on are likely to establish poorer diets." There's also evidence that eating more meals away from home leads to higher blood levels of a class of chemicals that are used to line take-out and fast food packaging.
A Future of More Fruits and Veggies
Dining away from home means kids are missing out on other important things too. "Kids who are eating with their families at restaurants get the benefit of the time and connection, but they don't get the benefit of learning how to make a meal happen," says Brianne DeRosa of The Family Dinner Project. "They aren't setting the table, helping to prep foods, learning how to cook simple dishes, and learning to properly clear and clean up. These are important life skills, and kids whose families make a habit of eating at home have more opportunities to be involved in and learn about every step of the process."
Dr. Fiese calls this "family food involvement". In her research, preschoolers whose families involved them in simple acts of food prep (like stirring food and going to the grocery store) tended to be eating more fruits and vegetables one year later than preschoolers who weren't as engaged.
Family dinner can be scrambled eggs and fruit. It can be quick quesadillas with veggies or sandwiches made with the leftovers of a store-bought rotisserie chicken. It doesn't have to be gourmet, elaborate, or Pinterest-worthy.
—Brianne DeRosa of The Family Dinner Project
More Adventurous Eaters
Eating more meals at home may also help your child broaden her food horizons. Restaurant menus tend to limit kids' choices, especially when so many kids’ menus are dominated by chicken nuggets and hot dogs. At home, kids are more likely to encounter different kinds of foods. "Restaurants allow kids to choose only what they specifically want to eat, while eating family meals at home means that parents can set out the foods they want their kids to be exposed to," says DeRosa.
And though she says she doesn't have data on it, Dr. Fiese says that many restaurant meals seem to involve distractions like cell phones and tablets to keep kids occupied. "My concern is that when families are distracted they are not paying attention to each other and learning about what has happened in their daily lives, tracking emotions, and providing that genuine regard that is important for health and wellbeing," she says.
How to Make Meals at Home Easier
Sure, we've all used tech to get through a restaurant meal with squirmy kids—and we've all had seasons of life when meals at home just weren't happening very much. It's what you do most of the time that matters. And remember that meals at home don't have to be fancy. A "home-cooked meal" doesn't even have to be cooked—it can be cold sandwiches!
"One of our biggest mantras is: Let go of 'perfect,'" says DeRosa. "Family dinner can be scrambled eggs and fruit. It can be quick quesadillas with veggies or sandwiches made with the leftovers of a store-bought rotisserie chicken. It doesn't have to be gourmet, elaborate, or Pinterest-worthy. The focus should be on the quality of the time you spend together."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a no-judgements zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.