Do family meals matter? What difference do they make? What does the research say?
Family meals are associated with many benefits
Research tells us that more frequent family meals are associated with numerous benefits to people of all ages and in all types of family configurations. Some of these benefits are:
improved dietary quality: more fruits, vegetables, grains, calcium-rich foods, and several micronutrients; and fewer soft drinks
lower incidence of disordered eating
lower incidence of risk-taking behaviors such as tobacco, alcohol, and drug use
healthier weights in some population groups
improved psychosocial well-being
lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts
improved language acquisition and higher grades
improved family cohesiveness
Do family meals cause these benefits? Is this a cause-and-effect relationship?
Note the use of the word associated to describe the relationship of family meals with these benefits. We don’t fully understand to what extent these benefits are the direct result of the family meal experience. We do know that family meals are a marker for healthy, well-functioning families. Does that explain the associated benefits?
After 30 years of family meal research exploring the vast array of benefits associated with family meals, more recent research is asking questions to determine to what extent family meals cause these outcomes, what characteristics of family meals contribute to these benefits, and whether these benefits persist from one period of childhood to the next and into adulthood.
Additionally, family meal interventions seek to discover whether promoting family meals and equipping families to be more successful in achieving them can lead to these benefits in families that previously did not have frequent family meals.
Let’s look at what the research says…
Are the benefits due to a higher level of family functioning or the family meal?
This question comes up frequently in discussions of family meal benefits. Until recently, the answer could only be, “We don’t know.” Now, we have a partial answer as studies begin to account for the role of family functioning.
Researchers from the U.S. and Canada examined a large national sample of adolescents and young adults participating in the Growing Up Today Study to determine the extent to which the level of family functioning is associated cross-sectionally with the frequency of family dinners and dietary intake.
Dietary intake measurements included the consumption of fruits and vegetables, sugar-sweetened beverages, takeout food, and fast food. Family dinner frequency was measured using the question, “How often do you sit down with other members of your family to eat dinner or supper?” Response choices ranged from never to 5 or more times per week.
Family functioning was assessed using the General Family Functioning Scale of the Family Assessment Device. Measures include factors such as problem-solving, communication, roles, affective responsiveness, affective involvement, and behavioral control.
Research findings indicated that “family functioning did not moderate or confound the association between family dinner frequency and improved dietary intake.” The researchers concluded: “More frequent family dinners are associated with healthful dietary intakes among youths, regardless of level of family functioning. Family dinners may be an appropriate intervention target for improving dietary intake among youths.”
More studies are needed to look at additional populations as well as the extent to which family functioning plays a role in explaining the outcomes related to other benefits of family meals.
Read more about the research on family functioning and family meals.
What characteristics of family meals make a difference?
If the family meal truly makes a difference and it’s not just because high-functioning families have more family meals, then the question arises – What characteristics of family meals need to be present or more prevalent to make a difference? Does any type of family meal reap the same benefits?
Family meals cooked from scratch are associated with higher intakes of fruits and vegetables and overall better dietary quality than meals consisting of fast food, convenience foods, or takeout/delivery. This finding comes from cross-sectional data on parent-adolescent pairs participating in the FLASHE Study.
The researchers concluded that interventions are needed for improving cooking skills and for encouraging the serving of a wider variety of foods when meals are not prepared from scratch.
In addition to how a family meal is prepared, research shows that it makes a difference whether the television is on during the meal. The presence of television is associated with poorer dietary quality of meals as well as a more negative emotional atmosphere at the meal.
The negative effect of television is seen even if family members are not paying attention to the television. When family members are actively watching television during meals the negative impact on dietary quality and emotional atmosphere is even greater. Research has also shown a negative impact from any type of media usage, such as cell phones.
The mealtime characteristic least studied yet possibly most valued is the role of family mealtime communication. In a study employing the experience sampling method, researchers measured the extent of family mealtime communication while controlling for the quality of family relationships.
The researchers found teens spent on average just over 3 hours a week eating with one or both parents and approximately half of the time spent at meals was spent in conversation. Eating with parents and mealtime communication were both positively associated with emotional well-being regardless of the quality of family relationships.
Do family meal benefits and practices persist throughout childhood and into adulthood?
The frequency of family meals is highest in early childhood and decreases over time. Do the benefits from early family meal experiences also diminish?
To answer this question, a study involving nearly 1500 children in the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development looked at the quality of the family meal environment at age 6 and compared it with lifestyle habits, academic achievement, and social adjustment at age 10.
Researchers found that the quality of the family meal environment at age 6 predicted higher degrees of physical fitness, lower consumption of soft drinks, and lower levels of various negative behaviors such as aggression at age 10, adjusting for various child and family characteristics including family functioning. Early positive habits can persist and continue to provide benefits.
Do family meal practices persist into adulthood? According to various surveys, perceptions of past experiences with family meals appear to influence whether parents carry on that routine with their families.
To further study this association with longitudinal data, researchers from the University of Minnesota used 15-year follow-up data from the Project EAT cohort to study the persistence of family mealtime practices from adolescence into adulthood.
They found positive associations between mealtime practices such as the healthfulness of food served at meals, the expectation to be present for meals, and eating without the television on at meals when comparing measurements taken during adolescence with those taken during adulthood.
These associations were stronger in females than in males. There was not a significant association with the frequency of family meals between adolescence and adulthood. All family mealtime practices, including frequency, were reported as more favorable in adulthood than had been reported during adolescence. Certainly, more research is needed to answer these questions.
What is the impact of family meal interventions?
With the evidence mounting in favor of the family meal, providing interventions to increase their frequency and quality could be a significant public health initiative.
Few research-based interventions targeting the family meal are reported in the literature and those that are reported have very mixed results. We clearly need not only more research on what will make an intervention successful but also how to design the intervention and research to better investigate the impact.
Successfully achieving family meals requires specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Research into what factors enhance the ability to successfully execute a family meal is lacking.
A grounded theory study produced a framework of the components involved in executing the family meal. This framework can help us better understand the family meal and can inform the design of interventions to promote the family meal. It is illustrated below.
What messages will be the most successful in motivating and empowering families to have more frequent and enjoyable family meals? This question was explored in a study of parents’ views of social marketing campaigns promoting family meals. Findings suggest that campaigns should focus on helping parents get family meals on the table more easily to overcome the main barrier of time.
The research leading to the creation of the family meal model indicates that interventions to increase the frequency of family meals may be more successful when they focus on the motivation to enjoy spending time together, having meaningful conversations, and connecting with family members.
These two studies relied heavily on listening to families to learn what resonated with them and motivated them. To be successful, we must design family meal interventions based on what families want and need. We have only begun.
In honor of Family Meals Month, celebrated every September, we focused this month on what makes sharing meals with others something worth celebrating. We explored what people value most about family meals, how family meals are enjoyed in various cultures around the world, how to enhance conversation at meals and ways to overcome common barriers.
Looking for resources for promoting family meals? I’ve got you covered!
“Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people eat together.” ~ Guy Fieri
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