The start of the holiday season subsequently means the start of a lot more quality time with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins than you might be used to year round. But while cooking up Thanksgiving dinner for a hoard relatives and making room for out-of-state family members to crash at your place can make the whole ordeal of family time a bit daunting at this time of year, the reality is that this time spent with family can have seriously positive payoffs when it comes to your health. (Which is good news, since the same can’t exactly be said about the heaping piles of mashed potatoes and stuffing that manage to creep onto your plate every Turkey Day.)
The health benefits of spending time with your family at the Thanksgiving dinner table all come back to the basic benefits of family dinners as a general tradition. The idea has always been that making time to sit down as a family every night to share a meal is an important way for family members to strengthen ties to one another, be it through recapping their days, sharing a laugh, or just making an effort to enjoy each other’s company. And, in fact, a number of studies have shown that kids who eat dinner with their families frequently are more likely to do better in school, less likely to be overweight, and less likely to get mixed up with things like drugs and alcohol.
Now, granted, Americans tend to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner regardless of whether or not they make it a priority to have family dinners on any old day of the year. In that case, the aforementioned stats don’t exactly play into holiday-based family time. (Having dinner with the family one time at Thanksgiving probably isn’t going to lead to straight As.) But that’s not to say that a family meal, even if only around the holidays, doesn’t have its merits.
For starters, the fact that Thanksgiving dinner is a family-centric ritual that repeats annually and circles around the idea of quality time is, in itself, healthy. There’s a benefit to having something familiar and comforting to look forward to every year, where things like signature foods and seeing your relatives can be expected but there’s always the added intrigue of new stories and memories to add to the experience every year. This idea of tradition can translate into a feeling of belonging, and that in turn translates to a strong identity and sense of self.
There’s also the intergenerational aspect of Thanksgiving dinners, by which positive memories and traditions are passed down from one generation to the next, creating a real sense of “togetherness.”
According to psychologist and author Barbara Fiese, it all comes down to the cross-generational emotional connections that are built through rituals like Thanksgiving.
“When parents have more positive memories of family rituals from when they were growing up, they also tend to interact more positively with their children, which in turn leads to better mental health for the kids,” she said in an interview with U.S. News. “It’s hard to escape the intergenerational pattern of these rituals.”
So while the thing you might be most looking forward to every Thanksgiving is getting to indulge in a few of your favorite Turkey Day dishes (we totally get that), you might want to be extra sure to relish in family time this year, too. It is, after all, the healthy thing to do.