18/05/2021

Deriving Whole Person Health from family mealtimes

Over the past year, many of us have rediscovered the benefits of spending more time together with our family. The implementation of the circuit breaker as well as various social distancing measures meant that we had extended periods of interaction with our loved ones, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to re-evaluate and strengthen existing relationships. In fact, Cigna’s 360° Well-being Survey found that respondents in Singapore have experienced better interpersonal connections and lower feelings of isolation since the onset of the pandemic. This is coupled with the fact that 45% of the respondents saw an increase in the time spent with their family, and 38% of them also felt that the quality of time spent with their family had improved. While these findings turned out to be an unintentional side benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to keep in mind that spending time together with our loved ones does not always require a complete overhaul of our lifestyles, nor does it have to be a huge endeavour. Instead, it is often the simpler, consistent efforts that make the biggest difference - such as eating together during mealtimes.

The benefits of eating together as a family

Holistic and sustainable acts of care often entail the concept of Whole Person Health, which is the belief that our physical, mental, financial and social health are all intrinsically intertwined and interdependent. Eating together as a family, surprising as it may seem, is one way in which we can achieve that.

Beyond the surface benefits of promoting better and healthier eating habits, dining with our families can also improve our physical health in the long run. Studies have found that we are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables and less likely to consume fast food and sugary beverages during family meals1. There is even a direct correlation between the frequency of shared family meals in adolescence and reduced odds of obesity or weight issues for up to 10 years later2. This can be attributed to the modelling of healthful eating behaviours between family members as well as the provision of an emotionally supportive environment that allows us to better regulate our personal eating habits.

Similarly, family meals provide us with unique opportunities for emotional connection that can bring about further mental health benefits. These benefits primarily stem from the interactions that occur during the meal, including familial guidance and emotional reassurance. When we genuinely encourage open conversations and actively listen to each other, we are conveying a sense of worth and respect that helps to boost our communication skills, overall confidence and self-esteem. Research has found that this can also further reduce our risk of developing psychosocial issues such as eating disorders, alcohol abuse and clinical depression3

Ultimately, having better physical and mental health allows us to be fully present in living our day-to-day life. Studies have suggested that our social connections improve when we dine with our families because the diverse benefits that we reap from it help us to feel more satisfied with life4. This subsequently drives us to be more engaged within our communities, be more trusting of others, and therefore have more friends that we can turn to for support.

Making healthy family mealtimes a priority

For something that seems as simple as dining together with our loved ones, it can be surprisingly hard to commit to it as a habit, especially given the hectic schedules and strains of modern day living. However, the most straightforward way of dealing with this is simply by making family mealtimes a non-negotiable priority. This may involve a mindset shift for everyone evolved, so it is essential to understand how it can be beneficial to you and your family as well as why it is important to you. You can also commit to making it a part of your routine by officially blocking out a set period of time every other week or month, depending on what your family agrees on. Making small but firm changes like these will eventually help to cultivate a habit that will undeniably prove to be valuable in the years to come.

The next major step to making family mealtimes a priority is by maximising the time that you spend together. There are many ways in which this can be done, but the key is to truly make the event your own. For a start, rethink your expectations of what a family meal should be by doing away with pre-existing stereotypes and begin defining what you want it to be instead. This can refer to expectations such as having to plan and cook full-course meals, which can be unfeasible when you are juggling other professional and personal commitments. Over time, having unrealistic standards like these will only serve to make the event more stressful than necessary and even cause it to become a source of dread. Instead, consider alternatives such as at-work deliveries of healthy, take-home meals, meal planning services, or potluck sessions. You can also involve the rest of your family in the cooking process if you choose to do so; it will provide bonding opportunities and even reduce the preparation time needed. Additionally, consider setting rules regarding mealtime interactions. Having everyone put away their phones and electronics, for instance, can allow for more meaningful and mindful meals together. At the end of the day, the needs of your family will likely change over time and that may mean having to adjust and readjust these rules as you deem fit. As long as you are doing what is best for you and your loved ones, you can’t really go wrong.

Over to you

Beyond being one of the core sources of love, support and belonging, families also serve as the security nets that we turn to in times of crisis. However, our stresses and schedules can often overwhelm us, making us lose sight of what is important, such as our own wellbeing and the people around us. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a timely reminder for us to slow down and take stock of the important aspects of our life. And as the world adapts to the new normal, there exists a real opportunity for us to rethink and transform the way that we approach our health and wellbeing as well as our relationship - starting with making family mealtimes a priority.

 

Resources:

1. Walton, K., Horton, N., Rifas-Shiman, S., Field, A., Austin, S., & Haycraft, E. et al. (2018). Exploring the Role of Family Functioning in the Association Between Frequency of Family Dinners and Dietary Intake Among Adolescents and Young Adults.

2. Berge, J., Wall, M., Hsueh, T., Fulkerson, J., Larson, N., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2021). The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations.

3. Harrison, M. E., Norris, M. L., Obeid, N., Fu, M., Weinstangel, H., & Sampson, M. (2015). Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth.

4. Dunbar, R. (2017). Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating.

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