The Benefits of Eating Breakfast Together

January 31, 2014

Different schedules and difficulty finding time to eat together are common barriers to having family meals.

Originally published on Food, Nutrition & Science...

We’ve all heard the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Now, new research suggests that eating breakfast together as a family can have an even greater impact on the health of family members, particularly adolescents. The University of Minnesota study found that eating together as a family improved diet quality and lowered the risk for overweight and obesity. 

Most families agree that eating together as a family is a good idea. However, there are many barriers to actually being able to do so, including incompatible schedules and the lack of time. And then there’s the question of when to eat together. Previous studies in this field have focused on together meals at dinnertime – and have demonstrated the benefits of eating the dinner meal together. This study looks at the effects of family mealtime at breakfast specifically.

“Different schedules and difficulty finding time to eat together are common barriers to having family meals. Therefore, we have frequently been asked by parents and the popular media whether it matters if families eat together in the evening versus other times of the day such as at breakfast,” says study author Dr. Nicole Larson.

Larson and her team examined a diverse group of middle and high school students for their report. From a sociodemographic perspective, boys reported more family meals at breakfast than girls, and middle school students reported more meals together than high school students. There were racial and ethnic differences, too, with the highest frequencies of together mealtime reported by adolescents of black, Hispanic, Native American and mixed race/ethnicity – at the dinner meal these differences don’t exist. Additionally, those living in households with two parents tended to eat together more often than those living in other household structures.

Perhaps most significantly, researchers found a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity amongst teens eating breakfast with their families. Even those teenagers who ate breakfast with their families just one time per week had positive results in this department, compared with those who never eat together. These adolescents also had better diet quality, including higher intakes of fruit (.37 more additional daily fruit servings!), whole grains and fiber. These findings are all indicative of the great benefits eating together at breakfast can provide.  

“There is a need for additional research to explore hypothesized reasons why having shared meals may contribute to better dietary intake and health outcomes. Having more frequent shared meals may contribute to better diet quality when parents model healthy choices for their children. It may also be true that household members are more likely to take the time to shop for and prepare healthful foods when their efforts will be shared with others,” says Larson.

But overall, adolescents say they eat with their families 1.5 times per week at breakfast and 4.1 times per week at dinner. More than half (53%) never eat breakfast together with their families, and 26.2% eat breakfast together with family members one or two times per week. On the other hand, together dinners are much more common, with 31.9% eating together at dinner seven times a week, 35.9% eating together three to six times per week, and only 14.4% never doing so. Getting more families to eat together at breakfast, says Larson, should be an important goal for industry and health professionals.

Ultimately, breakfast could be a good alternative to dinner as a meal to plan for together time, especially if getting the whole gang together at dinner is impossibility. There is a particular need as well to get this message across to families of teen girls, high school youths and youths of white and Asian racial/ethnicity, as these groups ate together with their families at breakfast much more infrequently than boys, middle grade youth and youth of black, Hispanic, Native American and mixed race/ethnicity.

“Families of adolescents experience many barriers to eating together (e.g., lack of time, food insecurity, lack of food preparation skills, and so on). Parents should be given encouragement and support to share breakfast meals as well as dinner together with their children. Communities can support parents by making changes to reduce barriers to family meals such as scheduling events and allowing flexible schedules so that families can eat breakfast or dinner together,” adds Larson.