Children in families who regularly sit down together for meals have what is known in sociological parlance as “better outcomes,” many studies have found.
They’re more likely to succeed at school and less likely to be depressed. Their food habits are healthier: They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and have fewer struggles with extreme food behaviors like binging, purging and chronic dieting. Some research suggests that family meals protect kids from obesity, although those findings are inconsistent.
No wonder, then, that parenting — and nutrition — experts almost universally encourage regular family meals. Yet, according to a 2008 report [PDF] by the National Academies of Sciences’ Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), only half of American families eat together three to five times a week. (And many of those meals fall far short of “quality time.” Most family meals, notes the SRCD, last less than 20 minutes — and half are consumed with the TV on nearby.)
Why do some parents find the time and energy to gather their families together at meal times (let’s hope with the TV off) and others don’t? One factor may be their parenting style. According to a University of Minnesota study published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “authoritative” parents average the greatest number of family meals — four to five — per week.
“Our findings support what we already know about parenting style,” said Jerica Berge, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of family and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in an interview last week. Other research, she noted, has found that kids raised by authoritative parents are more likely to eat healthful foods and tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than kids raised in families with other parenting styles.
Authoritative not same as authoritarian
But don’t confuse “authoritative” with “authoritarian.” According to the parenting-style classification system used by Berge and her colleagues, authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive: They maintain clear boundaries and expectations, but they’re also empathic and respectful of their child’s opinions. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, are demanding (they insist on strict discipline) but not responsive (they show little warmth toward their child).
The other two parenting styles are permissive (“empathetic and indulgent without discipline”) and neglectful (“emotionally uninvolved” with no rules or expectations).
In the U of M study, authoritarian and neglectful parents averaged the fewest number of family meals: three to four per week. Permissive parents did slightly better, three to five per week. Those numbers may all sound similar, but they are statistically different enough to be significant.
Berge said she believes her study is the first to look at the connection between parenting styles and the frequency of family meals. Data for the study came from the U of M’s Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), an ongoing research project that’s investigating the factors that influence the eating habits of teenagers. In 1999 and again in 2004, two groups of Minnesota teenagers (middle school and high school) completed questionnaires that identified, among other things, the parenting style and frequency of family meals in their homes. The fact that the teens provided the data themselves is, of course, one of the limitations of a study with this kind of methodology — but not as limiting as you might think. As the study notes, other research has found that adolescents’ perceptions of their parents’ health-related behaviors can be more accurate than those of the parents themselves in predicting health outcomes for the teens.
Organization and routine are key
Why are authoritative households more likely to eat together?
“The organizing, preparing, and eating of a family meal may be a stress-inducing event, and families that have more organized and structured homes with responsive family members may be more able to successfully carry out family meals,” writes Berge and her colleagues in the study.
Interestingly, the study also found that for teenage boys, having an authoritative mother was more likely to result in more frequent family meals, while for teenage girls, having an authoritative father was associated with more family meals.
“At adolescence, you start to value the opposite-sex parent more,” said Berge. Other research, she added, has shown that children are more likely to be successful at losing weight when paired in parent-child weight-loss programs with the parent of the opposite sex (fathers with daughters, mothers with sons).
To tease out exactly what happens at family meals to make them beneficial for the child (the quality of the food? the parental modeling? the content of the conversations? the emotional atmosphere?), Berge and her U of M colleagues have launched a new study — a direct observational one, which involves going into homes and watching families while they eat together.
That data won’t be published for a while. In the meantime, Berge recommends that parents adopt some of the mealtime behaviors of authoritative parents, even if they don’t want to change their overall parenting style. “Set a routine for family meals, and make cooking fun,” she suggests. And at the meal itself, establish a pattern of warmth and open communication.
Don’t feel you need to eat every meal together, either. “The magic number seems to be around 4 or 5 a week with younger children and about 3 or 4 a week with the older [high school] ones,” she said.
Oh, and turn the TV (and phone and computer) off.