Skip to main content

by Daniel Waldheim, Regent University Charis Institute

Another way to probe why mealtime is important is to explore what it does for the family unit, as well as the individuals within the family. In other words, what are the benefits conferred to the family as a whole, as well as the members of the family, from consistently partaking in family meals that are positive experiences?

Connection and Empathy

One of the greatest benefits of a positive family meal for the family unit is the increased connection, empathy, and subsequent togetherness. The food itself is important, (make sure it is good:) but not the supreme ingredient for actualizing a successful family meal. Fishel (2015) is clear, “The real power of family dinners comes from the particular quality of conversation around the dinner table. Unlike talk we have during carpool or while tucking in a child at bedtime, conversation at the dinner table is likely to be linguistically complex, cognitively challenging, and very engaging” (p. 8).

Great conversation demands rich connection because it requires cognitive and emotional involvement from all participants, but also builds connection as “families who eat together most nights know what is going on in one another’s lives” (p. 20). Additionally, a precondition for quality interpersonal conversation is that the listener engages the speaker via the giving of their attention. The distracted self is physically present, but psychologically absent. Conversely, being present in face-to-face conversation is “the most human- and humanizing- thing we do.

Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood” (Turkle, 2016, p. 3). It is the listening characterized by curiosity and emotional attunement, (Fishel, 2015, p. 8) as well as the psychological incarnation in connection that makes empathic mutuality and unity among family members especially salient in family dinners. Family dinners that are successful therefore help the family members live out the exhortation in James 1:19, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (ESV) because they demand good listening skills, patience and emotional understanding, and an edifying word selection.

Positive Outcomes

The empirical research has found other positive outcomes of family meals (i.e., dinners) that will briefly be presented. Family meals:

*Mitigate adolescent problem behaviors: Fulkerson et al. (2010); Neumark-Sztainer et al. (2008); Sen (2010) are studies, after controlling for other factors that could confound the results, (e.g., degree of family cohesion) that “linked regular family dinners to lowering the frequency of several high-risk teenage behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, behavioral problems, eating disorders, and early teen sexual activity” (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 516).

*Bolster mental health: Eisenberg et al. (2004), a study of ethnically and socioeconomically diverse teens from an American city found that “frequency of family meals was also associated with lower rates of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideations, even after controlling for variables such as family connectedness” (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 516).

* Increase school performance: Hofferth and Sanberg (2001) found school-aged children also derive intellectual benefits from family dinners. Regular mealtime “is a more powerful predictor of academic achievement than time spent doing homework, playing sports, or making art” (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 515). CASA (2007) concluded “adolescents who dined with their families five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get As in school compared to those who ate dinner with their families fewer than five times a week” (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 516).

*For the Fathers: Kim (2017) found that family meals were positively associated with time usage and life satisfaction of fathers with children less than 18 years old, specifically if they spent 40 minutes or more at mealtimes. This study specifically studied the father, although it would be interesting to see if this finding extrapolated to the mother. Based upon the body of research on family mealtime presented throughout this blog series, there is no good reason to think these benefits wouldn’t apply to women, as well as parents who have kids older than 18.

Value Transmission

Arguably one of the most important aspects family meals provide parents is the ability to transmit a coherent belief and value system to their children, and the children benefit because they receive a cogent worldview from this intentional impartation of values and beliefs. Proverbs 22:6 instructs parents to “raise up a child in the way they should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).

Family meals are an excellent means to practically and unwaveringly, during the ebbs and flows of life, implement this exhortation. This is because family meals serve as an explicit arena for value transmission. Fishel (2015) tells us how, “Food is to families what sex is to couples, what a sandbox is to children, or what music is to adolescents. It’s a medium of play- a way for families to have pleasure with one another while expressing their values, roles, hopes, and identities” (p. 7-8) through the meaningful conversations that occur at the table.

The food provides an atmosphere wherein the mechanisms of conversation, story, and parental instructions transmit the values of the parent to the child. Family meals also create a sense of family identity. Fiese et al. (2006) comment that mealtimes “illustrate family identity and the creation of group membership” (p. 68) so that children understand who they are in the context of their family (i.e., sense of self), what they believe, and why they believe what they believe (if the parents disclose an apologetic rationale).

Family Worship

It is here that I will briefly introduce the concept of family worship. Whitney (2019) asserts, “Having your family in a Christ-exulting, gospel-centered, Bible-teaching local church is crucial to Christian parenting. But it is not enough for conveying to your family all that you want to teach them about God and your beliefs. Moreover, it is unlikely that exposure to the church once or twice a week will impress your children enough with the greatness and glory of God that they will want to pursue him once they leave your house” (p. 14).

Family worship is a topic that can and should be probed far deeper than the treatment of it I offer here, but the basics of family worship include the setting aside time of prayer, Bible reading, and singing with other members of the family so the family can be spiritually nurtured and led to grow more in grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18) through the inward working of the Spirit throughout the sanctification process of those in Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

It may be that for some families, the table is a great place to open with prayer, hymn, or short Scripture passage. Perhaps it is not the best time for your family to have this intentional time of worship. However, with the concept of family worship now salient, it would be worthwhile to consider bits of time where your family can incorporate these spiritual disciplines to honor and further the call of making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) in your own home, as well as to strengthen the marital bond with your spouse.

Symbolic Power

Values are also passed through mealtime implicitly. Mealtime symbolism flows from symbolic interaction theory which examines the meaning attached to reciprocal interactions within the family. Put differently, “We interpret or attach meanings, situations, roles, and relationships” (Cohen and Strong, 2020, p. 47). These meanings reflect the value structures the family subscribes to and the children inculcate. Fiese et al. (2006) comments, “Mealtimes are replete with symbolism, ranging from the types of blessings said, food served, and even how seats are assigned” (p. 68). 

In these ways, mealtime a the vehicle for implicit value transmission that forms the familial identity and communicates meaning through the significance of symbols. For example, complementarity between husband and wife could be reflected in seating arrangements where the husband sits at the “head” of the table. In a more egalitarian family, seating arrangements may be randomly selected and not hold the same meaning as they do for the complementarian family.

Other aspects of mealtime that are heavily symbolic and value-transmitting include which partner cooks and cleans, the type of things that are appropriate to talk about, the accepted degree of emotional expressiveness, if prayers occur, the content of the prayers, etc. We see that during mealtime, values are modeled, the family is shaped, and the kids absorb the lenses to view the world that parents impart to them.


In sum, family meals matter. They are a sacred time and space set apart for the purposes of connecting with family members, being present with them, listening to them, learning about them, and growing with them. Set a SMART goal to make sure family mealtime occurs, and use the general recommendations mentioned in blog three that will help to foster a positive mealtime no matter the the type of family. Aim for five family meals a week as this is the number researchers deem to be (i.e., operationalize) a consistent mealtime regime (Fishel, 2016, p.515).

It is critical for family meals to be positive, as shared experiences are perceived more intensely. A great mealtime experience will seem even better when it is shared in the presence of family. Even more compelling than this admission are the powerful effects wrought upon the family by consistent, positive meals. Positive family meals necessitate and build greater connection and empathy, mitigate adolescent problem behavior, bolster mental health, increase school performance, and are positively associated with time usage and life satisfaction for fathers with children under 18 years old.

Mealtime is worth the time investment if “one accounts for all the benefits a family derives from it: nourishment, protection from high-risk behaviors, a predictable break each day to decompress, a time to tell stories (Fishel, 2016, p. 517). Furthermore, family meals serve as a time for value transmission and shaping the family. Consider family worship immediately preceding the food. Mealtime maintains and increases family health. Fishel (2015) says, “Most families I see in my psychotherapy practice want to improve communication, strengthen ties, and promote the well-being of their children. While an hour of weekly therapy can be helpful, a nightly commitment to family dinners can be transformative” (p. 8).

Meals matter! May you and your family be blessed as you consider the table as a sacred space, and as you endeavor to live together with sympathy, love, and compassion (1 Peter 3:8) towards one another. Consistently break bread with your family, it will nourish everyone who participates.


Cohen, T. F., & Strong, B. (2020). The marriage and family experience: Intimate relationships in a changing society. Cengage Learning.

Fiese, B. H., Foley, K. P., & Spagnola, M. (2006). Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child well‐being and family identity. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2006(111), 67-89.

Fishel, A. (2015). Home for dinner: mixing food, fun, and conversation for a happier family and healthier kids. Amacom.

Fishel, A. K. (2016). Harnessing the power of family dinners to create change in family therapy. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 37(4), 514-527.

Kim, S. (2017). Family meal time and life satisfaction of fathers with a child younger than 18 years old. Family and Environment Research, 55(5), 465-480.

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. Penguin.

Whitney, D. S. (2019). Family Worship. Crossway.