Family Meal Time May Prevent Disordered Eating in Teens

Drawing of family sitting down for dinner eating mussels

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • The Mediterranean meal style is purported to lead to a longer life  
  • Family meals are crucial to positive food associations for teens
  • Home cooked, sit down meals can curb obesity and disordered eating in adolescents 

A new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that customs associated with the Mediterranean diet can have a positive influence on adolescent eating habits, particularly around disordered eating.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, interviewed families in the Catalonia region of Spain with 12- to 16-year-old children. The parents explained that as their children got older, it was more difficult to connect with them—something that parents everywhere can probably relate to.

The study found that conversing and sharing food around a device-free table is beneficial for adolescents, and it can contribute to their health. The standard Mediterranean meal may be slower, as well, which will help a child to better recognize fullness cues and chew properly.

The families that did not make time for family meals or were distracted by electronics were less likely to engage in pleasant conversation, and they often did not sit at the table together. The families that were less likely to sit down only at their evening meal together were also less likely to follow the Mediterranean diet. 

According to study researcher Anna Bach-Faig, "A healthy diet is not just what we eat but also how we eat it. Mediterranean diet is much more than a list of foods. It is a cultural model which includes how these foods are selected, produced, processed and consumed.”

Where Does the Mediterranean Diet Fit In?

The Mediterranean diet is recognized by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage,” and refers to the meal patterns of Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Cyprus, Croatia, and Portugal, which are known for their convivial dining.

Allison Chase, PhD, CEDS

Family meals allow for more oversight on eating behavior and increases the likelihood of early detection of unhealthy or concerning eating patterns.

— Allison Chase, PhD, CEDS

According to Melanie Keller, ND, “Studies have shown time and time again that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest eating plan to follow, yet the lifestyle portion is how it all comes together.” The Mediterranean diet emphasizes ingredients like fresh vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and healthy fats, but there is a key cultural component as well. Keller explains the steps of following a Mediterranean diet from a lifestyle perspective: 

  1. Eat healthily
  2. Laugh often
  3. Spend time with friends and family
  4. Make time to relax
  5. Get physically active
  6. Be productive
  7. Enjoy life and "the simple things"

These aspects, like relaxation and laughter, are present at mealtimes, which is what prolongs mealtimes and can increase family bonding. 

This lifestyle is quite different from a “Western one.” The study authors say that that style is less likely to promote family connectedness and more likely to consume more processed foods and develop unhealthy eating habits. 

Do Family Meals Really Prevent Disordered Eating? 

According to psychiatrist Shana Feibel, DO, family meals are extremely important to child development. They offer them a sense of togetherness and communication skills.

She says, “Children are able to establish good eating habits because they sit down to eat regularly day after day and week after week and it becomes routine. Also, children who eat with their families can have less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems later in life.”

Shana Feibel, DO

Children are able to establish good eating habits because they sit down to eat regularly day after day and week after week and it becomes routine

— Shana Feibel, DO

While eating disorders are complex, environmental factors can influence their development as well. According to Allison Chase, PhD, “It is essential to note that family dynamics do not cause eating disorders, a myth that has existed for decades before the support of helpful scientific research." 

Chase is the regional clinical director for the Eating Recovery Center, explains that meals as a family can potentially help to spot unhealthy patterns, and that research points to less unhealthy behaviors. She says, “Family meals allow for more oversight on eating behavior and increases the likelihood of early detection of unhealthy or concerning eating patterns.”

Signs of Disordered Eating Can Show Up at Family Meals 

Chase says that one of the advantages of family meals is that children can’t hide behaviors. “Family meals can help with detecting early signs of eating disordered behaviors.” These behaviors include: 

  • Eating very small portions or picking at or playing with food on the plate as opposed to eating it 
  • Cutting up food into very small pieces repeatedly and not consuming it 
  • Pushing food around on the plate
  • Consistently avoiding specific foods groups (i.e., carbs, fats, etc.) openly or hiding food in napkins or clothing
  • Eating large amounts of food quickly, then leaving the table during or right after the meal

These signs could be missed if everyone is left to fend for themselves for meals, or were permitted to eat alone. That is why Feibel believes, “Establishing open lines of communication is extremely important.” That communication can occur at the dinner table. 

What This Means For You

For families desiring to create a family dinner tradition, here is what Feibel recommends, “Start slowly and build up to more days of the week. It is important that the children do not feel too pressured into it. Try to make it so that they want to come to the dinner table. If you believe that your son or daughter may have an eating disorder, please seek help with your local behavioral health center.” 

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. de la Torre-Moral A, Fàbregues S, Bach-Faig A, et al. Family meals, conviviality, and the Mediterranean diet among families with adolescents. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 3;18(5):2499. doi:10.3390/ijerph18052499

  2. UNESCO. Mediterranean diet. 2013.