In addition to building communication, the shared meal fosters a healthier lifestyle. "Our fast food culture provides convenience but not a healthy lifestyle. Children learn to like healthy foods the more often they're exposed to them. Eating hamburgers on-the-run deprives children of that opportunity," Braner says.
Family dinner may also ward off future problems, such as eating disorders. They are "...perhaps the most important 'immunization' against childhood eating disorders," explains Abigail H. Natenshon, MA, LCSW, author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers and a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders in kids and families.
"Not only do kids learn the pleasure of eating with those they love," she says, "but through meals together, parents teach kids what healthy eating really is, as opposed to the misconception that healthy eating is about food restrictions and skipping meals."
Natenshon adds that even when the family cannot be together in its totality, healthy meals should still be provided and no child should eat alone, even if this involves having a parent just joining the child at the table for companionship.
"Family dinners become a child's best way to associate eating and food with love, nurturing, learning, and sharing," she says. "It bonds children to families and families to children."