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Expert Dinner Advice

Research on the Benefits of Family Meals Dr. William Doherty
For children, mealtime is more powerful than time spent in school, studying, or playing sports.



The big picture is that family meals, and especially dinner, are the single most important activity that parents can do to enhance the life of their children. Here are some major studies documenting these powerful benefits.

Benefits of Family Meals for Children

Mealtime is a strong predictor of childhood well-being. A national study of young children's time (age 3-12) found that more mealtime at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more powerful than time spent in school, studying, church, playing sports or art activities. Results were statistically controlled for age and gender of child, race and ethnicity, education and age of the head of the family, family structure and employment, income and family size.1

Family meals have been found to generate the largest amount of family talk and sophisticated word usage in comparison to other activities including toy playing and storybook reading. There are strong correlations between child vocabulary development and mealtime conversations. This is especially true when there are extended discussions around a specific topic by families at the dinner table.8

Benefits of Family Meals for Teens

The largest federally funded study of American teenagers found a strong association between regular family meals (five or more dinners per week with a parent) and academic success, psychological adjustment and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior and suicidal risk. (Results held for both one-parent and two-parent families and after controlling for social class factors).4

A national pool of teens supported these findings: in a comparison between teens with 5+ family meals per week, those with 2 or fewer family meals per week were three times more likely to use marijuana, 2.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes and 1.5 times more likely to drink alcohol. Those with more meals report lower family stress and tension, parents who are proud of them and more ability to confide in a parent. 3

A large study of Minneapolis/St. Paul area adolescents found that having more family meals was associated with less tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use; higher grade point average; fewer depressive symptoms; and less risk for suicide. The findings held after the researchers statistically controlled for the level of family connectedness; in other words, family meals conveyed benefits beyond the teen’s general sense of how close the family is. They also controlled for age, family structure, race and social class.5

Teens and parents alike believe in the value of family meals, with near universal agreement that it’s important to eat at least one meal a day together. Most teens report enjoying eating meals with their family, and most believe they would eat more healthful foods if they ate more with the parents. Scheduling conflicts and conflict during meals were principal barriers in the minds of teens.8

A surprising percentage of teens (24%) desire more frequent family dinners. This rises to 52% among families that have three or fewer family dinners per week. Almost all (94%) of parents with three or fewer family dinners per week wish they have more.3

Regular Family Dinners and Nutritional Intake

A medical study of children ages 9-14 found that children who have more regular dinners with their families have more healthful dietary patterns, including more fruits and vegetables, less saturated and trans fat, fewer fried foods and sodas, and more vitamins and other micronutrients. (Findings were based on children's own reports of what they ate in the last 24 hours, and held up after statistical controls for household income, maternal employment, body mass index, physical activity and other factors.)6 Another study found that college students with eating disorders had fewer family meals growing up.7

Quality of Family Dinners

There is a relationship between dinner frequency and ritual quality. Teens having fewer family dinners report much more TV during meals, little talk during dinner and that the meals do not last long enough.3

REFERENCES

Hofferth, S. L. "Changes in American Children's Time, 1981-1997." University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, Center Survey, January 1999. National probability samples of American families with children ages 0-12, using time diary data from 1981 and 1997. Findings on how time use is associated with children's well-being are reported in Hofferth, S. L. (2001). How American Children Spend Their Time. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 295-308. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. Putnam reports on the decline in dinners, using national probability samples of married couple households. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The Importance of Family Dinners, September 2005. Based on nationally representative surveys of teenagers. http://www.casacolumbia.org/absolutenm/articlefiles/380-Importance%20of%20%20Family%20Dinners%20II.pdf Council of Economic Advisers to the President. (2000). "Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: An Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement." Report released May 2000. Analysis of the Adolescent Health Study, using a national probability sample of adolescents and parents. Eisenberg, M. E., Olson, R. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., & Bearinger, L. J. (2004). Correlations between family meals and psychosocial well-being among adolescents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 158, 792-796. Study of 4,746 middle school and high school students. Gillman, M.W., Rifas-Shiman, S.L., Frazier, A.L., Rockette, H.R.H., Camargo, C.A., Field, A.E., Berkey, C.S., & Colditz, G.A. (2000). Family dinners and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Archives of Family Medicine, 9,235-240. A questionnaire using (24 hour recall) that was mailed to children of participants in the ongoing Nurses Health Study II. Ackard, D. M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2001). Family mealtime while growing up: Associations with symptoms of bulimia nervosa. Eating Disorders, 9, 239-249. Story, M., & Neumark-Sztainer (2005). A perspective on family meals: Do they matter? Nutrition Today, 40, 1-6.