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The family dinner: Not as important as once thought?

A new U of M study suggests that the benefits of eating together may not be as strong or as lasting as once thought.

The perceived benefits of the family meal may not be either as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggested.

Numerous studies have suggested that children from families who regularly eat together enjoy many social and health benefits.

Such children have (on average) healthier eating habits and body weight, for example. They’re more psychologically grounded and do better in school. And they’re less likely to abuse drugs or demonstrate delinquent behavior.

No wonder that “Make time for family dinners!” is one of the most popular pieces of advice handed out to parents by sociologists, psychologists, nutritionists and other experts.

The advice is so frequently given — and makes such intuitive sense — that no one seems to have questioned the data behind it. Until now. A new University of Minnesota study, published this week in the Journal of Marriage and Family, suggests that the perceived benefits of the family meal may not be either as strong or as lasting after controlling for other factors.

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“There seems to be something unique about the family dinner, but it’s just less of an effect than prior studies have found,” said Ann Meier, one of the new study’s co-authors and an associate professor of sociology at the U of M, in a phone interview Wednesday.

“No one had really tested this very rigorously before,” she added.

Richer data

For the study, Meier and her co-author, Kelly Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University in New York, used data from a sample of 18,000 children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a national school-based survey of adolescent behavior that was launched in 1994. This data had two main advantages over that used in other studies on the effects of family meals: It asked children (and their parents) questions about many factors of family life, and it asked those questions at several different points in time as the children grew into young adulthood.

“You could create some really good measures to help understand the family environments,” said Meier.

What she and Musick found was that instead of being a cause of healthier and happier children, family meals appear to be a marker for families that have a bundle of traits that contribute to good child outcomes. The data showed, for example, that families who regularly gather at the dining room table together tend to have more time and money than those whose members dine separately. The eat-together families also tend to have a non-employed mother and better overall family relationships.

In other words, most of the association between family meals and children’s well-being can be attributed to other factors.

The researchers also found that the only association between family meals and child well-being that persisted into the teen years involved depression. Adolescents whose families regularly ate together tended to report fewer symptoms of depression — perhaps, said Meier, because the meals gave parents a chance to check in regularly with how their kids were doing emotionally and to intercede when needed.

No such lasting association was found, however, between family meals and teenage substance abuse or delinquency (activities like shoplifting and damaging other people’s property).

Remains a good ritual

Despite the findings of this study, families should still try to have sit-down meals together, said Meier. But, she added, parents who can’t pull off the family meal on a regular basis shouldn’t feel guilty.

Family meals “may be a nice kind of ritual context for good parenting to happen,” she said, but such parenting “can happen in other ways, in other venues.”

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“Family meals do matter,” she added, “but just a lot less than previously reported.”