“Breakfast is a reminder that any good family meal is not about the food anyway,” says therapist Anne Fishel.
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By Belinda Luscombe
September 5, 2019
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Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME and the author of Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together.

Breakfast, it is oft alleged, is the most important meal of the day. Also a thing of champions. Plus a meal you really can have at Tiffany’s (as long as you book a month ahead and don’t mind paying $35 for avocado toast). And for many families, breakfast is now becoming something else: their primary family meal.

As parents deal with unpredictable workdays and kids’ after-school activities stretch into the evenings, gathering the clan around the table at dinner has become a more complicated operation to pull off. Yet the studies that suggest family mealtimes are great for everybody’s health and sanity are not ambiguous. Rather than struggle to hold it all together, some parents are just opting to front-load their family time.

“It kind of evolved organically,” says Meghan MacKinnon, of Wilmette, Ill., who has daughters in third, fifth and eighth grades. Their middle daughter is a picky eater, and much of their precious dinnertime was spent coaxing her to finish her meal. “We realized that in order to make sure she got enough calories, we had to give her a good breakfast,” says MacKinnon. “It was one of the meals she didn’t fight over.” So they began to make the first meal of the day a little more substantial. Then their daughters started to have multiple extracurricular pursuits, which made evenings a bit of a hustle for both parents. “It clicked with me a couple of years ago, when a friend of mine whose kids play a lot of hockey said, ‘We’ve become a breakfast family.’ And I realized, Ohhhh. We are too.”

The MacKinnons’ meal shift was the result of changes in the way their lives were ordered that are echoed throughout the U.S., if not much of the world. Her husband decided to work from home, rather than spend time commuting to an office he didn’t need. That meant he could come to breakfast, even if he didn’t always eat. With the rise of the gig economy and results-oriented work environments, more and more employees can set their own hours or work locations. But that doesn’t mean they put in fewer hours–they just contend with end-of-day spillovers. Eating together before work, rather than after, can be easier to plan for.

Like a majority of college-educated mothers, MacKinnon went back into the labor force and now works as a preschool administrator and teacher, meaning neither she nor her spouse has much bandwidth to prepare meals. For many parents, that time crunch leads to an increased reliance on eating out or grabbing takeout, but the MacKinnons took a different approach: “I’m not a good cook and I really don’t like cooking,” she says. “But I can make breakfast.”

And of course, the looming specter of college means many kids’ days are full of enriching activities, from sports to sessions with a math tutor. “I would say dinner when we have all five of us is once or twice a week, whereas breakfast we can manage four or five times a week,” says MacKinnon. “It’s the meal we most consistently eat together.”

 

Studies have long shown that eating as a family brings with it a cornucopia of benefits, ranging from decreasing a child’s risk for obesity, eating disorders, drug and alcohol use, depression and teen pregnancy, to improving their academic performance, eating habits, self-esteem and resilience. Mostly, however, this research has been based on families who have dinner together, which researchers find is still the preferred option.

But Anne Fishel, a family therapist and director and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization that endeavors to encourage families to eat together, is a breakfast believer. “It’s our go-to recommendation,” she says. “When families say they’re too busy for dinner, we say, ‘Well, what about family breakfast?'” In fact, the organization recently launched an offshoot, the Family Breakfast Project. It’s a seven-day guide with recipes, conversation starters and morning efficiency tips. Fishel is not the only one who’s into this idea. “Having breakfast family meals has become more common,” says Jerica Berge, director of the Healthy Eating and Activity Across the Lifespan Center at the University of Minnesota. She has done several studies specifically on breakfast and has found that the health benefits of family meals are not dependent on the time of day.

As might be expected, there are some experts who caution that trying to substitute breakfast for dinner is simply a sign that people are overloading their schedules at the cost of time with family and denying their children the chance to process the events of the day with their parents. “The big challenge with family breakfast is that there is a defined time that the family has to leave in the morning to get to work and school,” says Blake Jones, an assistant psychology professor at Brigham Young University, who has also studied family meals. Dinner, he points out, can be more leisurely and lead to longer conversations. “With bedtimes getting later, the influence of electronic devices in the evenings and shortened sleep patterns for adults and children, it is often the case that kids and parents don’t wake up early enough to get ready for the day and still have enough time to sit down to eat a meal as a family.”

Observational studies suggest that the average family dinner lasts about 20 minutes, though if you have little kids, it probably feels much longer. Breakfasts, with everybody needing to be out the door at a given time, would logically need to be much quicker, Jones observes. But breakfast advocates point to that shared deadline as a positive thing, because parents know where everybody is–the options are usually limited to bedroom, bathroom or waiting for the bathroom. Before dinner, the family could be flung to the four winds and impossible to locate.

One of the biggest advantages for many that family breakfast has over dinner is that it’s much more difficult to complain about. “The culinary choices for breakfast tend to inspire less grumbling,” says Laura Vanderkam, a time-management expert and the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. “We do want kids to eat their broccoli, but nobody serves it in the mornings.” Kids like the pancakes or French toast, and parents are delighted to smuggle in some fruit. Breakfasts are also easier to prepare. This obviates a problem raised by a 2014 study from North Carolina, which suggested that the benefits of the home-cooked family meal might be outweighed by the pressure providing such a meal puts on parents, usually women. Breakfast offers the option of a more equitable sharing of the load, since technically children can also be more involved in the preparation, which usually means they’re also more likely to eat.

Delicious food is one of life’s great pleasures, but–don’t read this part, Gordon Ramsay–it is not the point of the family meal. That ritual is much more about the conversation. And on this front, breakfast often wins. As all parents know, the only answer to the dinnertime question, What did you do today? that a child ever gives is, Nothing. Breakfast conversations, on the other hand, are much harder to wriggle out of. “You can ask things at breakfast that you can’t ask at dinner, like, What are you looking forward to today?” says Fishel. “Is there a part of the day that you’re worried about? Can we help you feel more confident? What’s the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning? Did you have any dreams last night?” (Note to readers: probably best not to ask them all at once.)

Some scholarship suggests that people are often better to be around in the morning, right after they’ve gotten some rest and before the day has ground them down–and not just the so-called morning people. Human willpower gets a little top-up while we sleep; we’re a little more sunny-side up. This is the MacKinnon family experience. “I think my kids are fresher in the morning,” Meghan MacKinnon says. “Our breakfasts are more calm and more fun because the kids aren’t tired and they’re not thinking about the homework they have to do. The grumpiness hasn’t kicked in.” They also find that as they look ahead to the day, they remember events–that it is school picture day and maybe a different T-shirt would be better, for example–that they would not have thought of the night before.

 

All of this is fine in theory, except for those creatures known as teenagers. The notoriously nocturnal adolescent of our species would gladly skip a gourmet breakfast in bed if it meant an extra five minutes with their eyes shut. A 2013 study of middle and high school students from Minneapolis found that on average, adolescents reported having family breakfasts 1.5 times and family dinners 4.1 times in the past week. But other studies have found that, despite their unwillingness to get out of bed on time, and their perception that they were too busy for an early meal with their family, most teenagers said they enjoyed the family breakfast–even if they didn’t want to talk to their parents during it. In March, a University of Missouri study of more than 12,000 students across 300 schools in the U.S. found that adolescents who consistently ate breakfasts with their families had a better body image.

Dinner is not in any danger of being replaced in the family-ritual pantheon. Nor should it be. But many families are finding that breakfast is a bit like an egg-white omelet; it’s not as good as the original, heartier dish, but it’s better than nothing and probably won’t kill them.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the September 16, 2019 issue of TIME.

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