Perhaps you’re familiar with the data that family meals are associated with better performance in school, increased self-esteem, and lower rates of anxiety. Parenting expert and professor of economics at Brown University Emily Oster, Ph.D., is certainly not one to knock those correlations, but for her—it’s a bit more nuanced: “It’s hard to separate the actual impacts of the family meal on kids because families who have routine meals are different in many ways than families that do not,” she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
However! If you do have family meals, Oster notes that those gatherings may have a profound impact on your food preferences—even as an adult. Below, she explains the underrated ways sitting down with loved ones can affect your nutritional well-being:
1. Family meals can influence your favorite foods.
“A lot of tastes are formed in childhood,” Oster says. Meaning: You typically like the food you grew up with. “Kids who grew up in a place where there’s a lot of rice, they learned to like rice; kids who grew up in a place with a lot of wheat, they learned to like wheat. That’s something we see very consistently,” she explains.
So let’s say you ate a certain meal with your family every Sunday—a weekly ritual, of sorts. Growing up, you may associate that food with the positive memory of gathering with your family; so whenever you eat that food as an adult, your brain floods with those same feel-good emotions and you may savor the food even more.
That said, if you want your kid to eat a certain way or have a favorite healthy food, “you have a lot of opportunities to scaffold that when they are young.” If your child sees you enjoying a specific food, chances are they’ll start to enjoy it, too (and who knows—maybe it will become their go-to later in life). “Think about what diet you’re trying to communicate, and then communicate that by serving that set of foods and whatever eating environment your kids are in,” Oster adds.
2. They can affect your sweet tooth.
It’s a similar logic to the former point: If you ate dessert as a family or (let’s say) baked cookies with your parents when you were little, your brain may associate the sweets with those positive memories. So every time you eat that treat, your brain may conjure those memories of when you were a child—and all the positive brain chemicals that come with them.
However, Oster also notes that kids who aren’t allowed to eat sweets typically overindulge. Some sort of balance is key: “The evidence largely suggests that if you tell a kid they can never eat ice cream, then ice cream becomes this forbidden love,” she says. “When faced with a giant ice cream, they’ll just eat the entire thing and go for more because it’s such an unusual opportunity.”
It makes us think: Could that betcha can’t have just one! mindset follow you as an adult? After all, some people can have two bites of a treat and feel satisfied; others find they need to cut out sweets cold turkey before slowly reintroducing them—we need more data, but it seems childhood may have some significance.
3. They can affect how picky of an eater you are.
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Are you a picky eater? It could have something to do with what you ate at the dinner table when you were little. According to Oster, kids can actually lose their appetite around 2 years old (commonly referred to as the appetite slump): “At some point early on in toddlerhood, like around 2 or 3 [years old], kids get less hungry,” she says. “They’re not eating quite as much as they did before, and sometimes they’ll get a little bit pickier.”
When this shift happens, parents tend to turn to a default: To get their kids to eat something—anything—it’s common to hand them nuggets, mac and cheese, and other “easier” flavors for kids to gobble up. “That can exacerbate the pickiness aspects because kids learn very fast,” says Oster. If you, as a child, learned that you could get mac and cheese if you refused to eat salmon, you may continue to use that tactic—as a result, you might not try as many foods early on, which may pave the way for pickiness later in life.
That’s why, Oster says, parents should refrain from offering the defaults: “That sort of eliminates the opportunity to try [different] foods,” she notes.
The family meal is a significant ritual that can shape kids’ nutritional well-being—at least for families who do have routine gatherings. To emphasize Oster’s previous point: If you didn’t grow up having family meals, it’s not like you’re “worse off” than kids who did, but for those who did grow up sitting down as a family, the effects are pretty significant.