As the 2011 holiday season becomes a memory, research suggests that at least one tradition – family meals – benefits children and youth year-round. A new factsheet by Child Trends summarizes state-by-state variations in the frequency of having meals together, for children ages birth to five years old, ages six to eleven, and twelve through seventeen.
We know that shared meals do more than satisfy appetites. Family meals demonstrate and build connectedness, as family members use this opportunity to report on their recent activities; to share troubles and triumphs, big and small; to discuss current events; and to teach, plan, laugh, and dream together.
Numerous studies have shown that children and adolescents who eat meals frequently with family members experience better outcomes than their counterparts who do so only infrequently or not at all. These associations hold up even after taking account of other child and family characteristics, including even other forms of family togetherness.
The positive child outcomes identified thus far in the research (see Child Trends’ Databank) include fewer behavior problems, and a lower likelihood of depressive symptoms, substance abuse (including cigarette smoking), fighting, and suicidal thoughts. Teens who regularly have meals with their families also tend to do better in school, and are more likely to delay initiation of sexual activity.
The experience of eating meals together as a family also seems to affect the quality of the food children and teens eat. Some studies find that when parents join their children at mealtimes, children consume more fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, and are less likely to skip breakfast (a meal critical for optimal academic achievement). For some subgroups of children and teens, the benefits may extend to reduced likelihood of being overweight or obese, or for developing an eating disorder.
What about watching television during mealtimes? Although many families do this occasionally and some do regularly, the available evidence suggests that regular viewing may not be a good idea. For one thing, having the television on inhibits the breadth of conversation that might otherwise occur. Teens, when asked what’s the best part of a family dinner, are most likely to mention the sharing, talking, and social interaction with family members. Television-viewing while eating, according to some evidence, is associated with reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables, and, perhaps even more importantly, with decreased attention (among both adults and children) to the cues that normally let us know when we’re “full”.
It’s important to note that while, in general, sharing meals is associated with benefits, cultural factors, such as race, ethnicity, and class, may strengthen, or weaken, some of the value of families’ eating together. For example, if families buy fast-food to share for their dinners, these meals are not likely to help children maintain a healthy weight. Clearly, the quality of the food families serve is also important to overall child well-being.
So, while the holiday season may have come to a close, it is important to remember the benefits both of eating well and spending quality time together over the dinner table.
Senior Research Scientist