How many times this week did you eat together as a family? Parents’ work schedules, after-school activities, and other commitments have made family mealtime a thing of the past. But eating meals as a family has been shown to improve nutritional health in children, and a recent study found that eating breakfast with at least one parent can help improve body image in teens as well. What is the relationship between eating meals as a family and body image? How can families realistically eat together?

How often are families eating together?

Surveys show that less than half of parents say they share meals with their family compared to the family mealtimes they had when growing up. Most families (99%) can say they have at least one meal together each week, but only 32 percent typically eat dinner together nightly. It’s uncommon for most families to eat breakfast together, except possibly on weekends, due to varying work and school schedules and the simple fact that a majority of adolescents frequently skip breakfast. Parents agree that, unfortunately, even when they can get their family eating together technology often is a distraction.

Improved body image

Beyond nutritional benefits, eating together can increase family communication, help teens problem-solve, and lead to improved body image. Body image during adolescence can be greatly influenced by family as well as by friends, media, and culture. It is a time in adolescents’ lives where they are making more food and exercise choices on their own, but it is also a time where they may feel most dissatisfied with their weight and appearance. Improving communication at family meals gives teens an opportunity to talk about their day and for parents to help them build their self-esteem, resulting in overall improved body image.

Tips on increasing family meal time

1. Make it a priority. Schedule mealtimes like you would a meeting or sporting event. Take a look at your family calendar weekly and set aside days during the week you can all eat together.

2. Make mealtime simple. You don’t need to prepare an elaborate meal on nights the family is busy. To make meals in less time, either eat leftovers or plan crockpot or instant-pot meals.

3. Get your kids involved. Running late from work or a school event can lead to not getting a meal prepared. Kids can help with food preparation and getting a meal started so it’s ready for family mealtime.

4. Try to eat breakfast together. Eat breakfast before school (or maybe plan a lunch on weekends) if you can’t eat dinner together regularly. Even though your teen may be grabbing a bowl of cereal for breakfast, this can be a time for a quick check-in with them about what they have planned for the day.

5. Turn off the technology. Make a rule of ”No electronics during mealtimes” to avoid distractions and engage in conversation instead.

6. Be flexible. Don’t insist that family meals be at the same time and place daily. Being flexible allows you to enjoy family time and may increase how often you eat together.

Finding a time to eat together can be challenging, but if it is made a priority it will become more routine and expected. The benefits of family mealtime extends to not only nutritional benefits but can also improve family communication and body image in adolescence as well.

Megan Robinson, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, is a registered dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.