Family Meal Habits May Point to Food Insecurity and Stability

Mother and father sitting at the table with a baby and toddler

Key Takeaways

  • Family mealtimes have a great impact on children, yet food insecurity can affect a family’s meal planning abilities. 
  • Chaotic environments can be correlated to family meal success, and those with low food security are more likely to live in these environments 

A recent study published in Appetite finds that family meal structure can impact a child’s health and wellbeing, and the effects can be both positive and negative.

Researchers at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences had over 500 families with elementary-age children respond to questions about food security. They also were asked about meal planning and preparation.

The results of the study showed that food insecurity often coincided with other risk patterns like meal planning capabilities or a family's overall organization, and requires a multi-dimensional solution.

Food Insecurity and Organization

After receiving responses from study participants, researchers derived three subgroups from the data. For the first group, 55% of the sample was considered “Food Secure and Organized.” These households also were the least chaotic and were less likely to struggle with affording healthy food. They also had a handle on making quality meals.

The second group, ”Very Low Food Security and Disorganized,” which made up 27% of the sample, was food insecure and struggled with meal planning. According to lead author Allen Barton, "This group not only reports they are food insecure, but they also report the lowest levels of confidence in preparing and planning meals and the most difficulty in daily structure and routine in the home.” This group also reported fewer family meals together, more brown-bagged meals, and more technology use while eating. 

The third group, “Low Food Security and Organized,” was 18% of the 500 families, and their food stability fell between the other two groups. However, their households and meal planning efforts were closer to the 55% that was food secure. This could lead to the conclusion that meal planning and reducing the stress at home could lead to better wellbeing. 

Regardless of which category they fell under, all families shopped at a variety of food stores and felt the same food demands—including handling picky eating and needing simple recipes. 

The Solution Isn't Straightforward

Barton explains, "We need to ensure families have access to healthy food. But we also need to make sure individuals within the family feel competent to prepare and plan meals, and the day-to-day organization at home has some stability and routine.” 

Allen Barton, PhD

We need to ensure families have access to healthy food. But we also need to make sure individuals within the family feel competent to prepare and plan meals.

— Allen Barton, PhD

Stable family meals go a long way, as psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW points out. She explains, “Sitting down together for a meal is one of the most powerful experiences that adults can offer their children to bolster resiliency, improve self-esteem, as well as promote healthy food behaviors."

Neidich continues, "One of the biggest gifts a parent can offer their children is to teach them about intuitive eating and listening to their body's unique hunger cues. Using consistent meal times as an opportunity to connect and talk about these principles is important, especially for younger children who are still learning to understand their hunger and fullness cues.”

Mealtime as Opportunity to Connect

Even in a household with food insecurity, meal times are still an opportunity for parents to reach their children. Neidich encourages parents to make sit down meals a priority, with no phones—instead, "presence and connection."

She explains, “If you speak to an adult with low self-esteem or disordered eating issues you will learn that a lot of trauma happens to children around mealtime—for instance, being forced to finish their plate, feeling criticized or exposed to conflictual communication styles. Make mealtime a peaceful experience where positive interactions are highlighted and be mindful about the type of messages you want to pass along to your kiddos about food, eating, and mealtimes." 

Haley Neidich, LCSW

One of the biggest gifts a parent can offer their children is to teach them about intuitive eating and listening to their body's unique hunger cues.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

The solution that was then presented went beyond making sure everyone has access to quality food. The study concluded that more research needs to be done, and it should focus on not only healthy food, but psychological and sociological factors that affect meal times.

In some aspects, her advice echoes that of Barton, but with additional recommendations for fixing food insecurity, "These mundane aspects of family life that may seem trivial are really formative. Think about one aspect that you want to improve in this area, whether it's having more healthy meals, less screen usage during meals, learning about different food banks, or just having more meals together during the week—and then develop a strategy to go about doing it."

What This Means for You

Barton sees family mealtimes as one of the most fundamentally important activities a family can engage in. In order to improve the lives of parents, children, and families as a whole, mealtime will need to be addressed. If you are struggling to get healthy food on the table, check out Verywell's meal planning resources and consider reaching out to local food pantries for support.

3 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.
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  2. Harrison ME, Norris ML, Obeid N, Fu M, Weinstangel H, Sampson M. Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youthCan Fam Physician. 2015;61(2):e96-e106.

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