Kids who eat with their families a lot generally have better nutrition, abuse fewer substances, are less suicidal, and have less sex. But these studies did not control for family connectedness. Families that are really close tend to produce healthier children and might also be more likely to eat together. Researchers at the University of Minnesota were worried that the earlier studies were confusing family connection and frequency of family mealtimesperhaps it wasn't the number of meals that made kids healthier but just being close with their family (that just happened to eat together often).
What the researchers wanted to know: After controlling for the closeness of a family, is there still a connection between the number of meals a family eats together in a week and the health of its kids?
What they did: Staff from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), a group that studies weight and eating habits among teenagers, administered a survey to 1,608 middle school students and 3,074 high school students in MinneapolisSt. Paul. The kids came from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The survey asked about eating habits, race, socioeconomic status, drug use, sexual activity, grades, and closeness with parents. It included questions like, "How much do you feel your [mother, father] cares about you?" with five possible answer choices ranging from "not at all" to "very much." Researchers evaluated the data for girls and boys independently using data that was adjusted for various factors including family connectedness and sociodemographics.
What they found: About one quarter of the kids said they ate seven or more meals with their parents each week. About one third of the kids said they never ate or ate only one or two meals with their families each week. Reseachers found that the more frequently children ate with their parents, the less likely they were to smoke, drink, use marijuana, or show signs of depression. Girls were also less likely to think about or try suicide or to do badly in school. And, yes, the results were controlled for family connectedness.
What this means to you: Making an effort to sit down with your family for dinner more often will probably pay off. The quality of your kids' life (especially your daughters') is likely to improve.
Caveats: Even though they were told the survey was confidential, kids could have given false answers (because they were embarassed, they couldn't remember, etc ). Just because kids have problems with, say, depression and they don't eat with with their family very often doesn't mean that the depression is caused by the lack of dinnertime togetherness. It could be that they feel miserable about themselves and therefore avoid participating in family dinners.
Find out more: Making the most of family mealtime www.eatright.org
Read the article: Eisenberg, Marla E., et al. "Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents." Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. August 2004, Vol. 158, pp. 792-796.