Family Meals: A Pathway to Good Outcomes or a Waste of Time?

A Typical Family Having Dinner
A Typical Family Having Dinner

Apparently, there’s research looking into whether family meals are beneficial to children or not. Surprisingly, they may not be.

I’m a big fan of family meals. I grew up in a house where you had to be mortally sick or out of the country to not sit down for dinner with the family. And with my kids I apply pretty much the same rule. Granted, my husband is out of the country quite often, but I eat with the kids every single meal they eat at home, except for date nights.

I was going over some new research, and I was surprised to see an article that used a longitudinal study (that is, the same children were followed up from kindergarten to 8th grade) to investigate the effect of family meals on children’s outcome, including academic achievement and behaviour problems. I was surprised because this didn’t sound like a longitudinal-research material: longitudinal research is fairly resource-heavy, mainly because you have to wait for the kids to grow up. I was further surprised to find out that there is quite a bit of research into this question, and that the findings are typically positive. That is, research typically finds that the more meals the child eats with the whole family, the better the outcomes of that child are. And it’s not just that the child who eats more meals with her family has better eating habits. The child who eats more meals with her family has better grades, and is adjusting better socially and emotionally at school. The idea is, basically, that family meals are quality family time. This time is spent communicating, creating relationships, enforcing values, and working through issues.

This new research I read, led by Dr. Daniel Miller at Boston University, looked at longitudinal data and found that this effect (the association between family meals and child outcomes) does not apply when you account for child “fixed effects”. Child fixed effects are factors that do not change over time, but that may be related to the predictor variables (in this case, the frequency of family meals). To me it sounds a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

There are some problems with the analysis. First, the attrition was biased. Attrition is participant loss over time due to various reasons – typically, children move or the parents stop answering the questionnaires. In this study, children who remained in the study were more likely to be of higher socioeconomic status, white, and not living in a single-parent home. That is, the children who stayed in the study are children whose outcomes are better for a lot of other reasons. If the sample is biased (and does not represent the population), you really shouldn’t be generalizing your research results.

Another problem with this study is that the family meal frequency was very high. Children who participated in this study reported having more family meals than in other studies (70% of 8th-graders reported eating 5-7 dinners with their family in a typical week, compared to 55% of students in grades 6-8 in another study). The other studies did find effects between family meal frequency and other outcomes. To me, this is a red flag saying that the children who participated in this study may not be representative not only in their socioeconomic status and ethnicity, but also in the frequency they have family meals.

In summary, I’m not giving up on family meals yet. There seems to be a lot of research out there suggesting that quality family meals are important times, in which children have an opportunity to talk about their day with their parent(s). Even if there are no positive long-term outcomes, to me having dinner with your family is a symbol of what family really is.

What are your family meal routines? Is that the way you like it?

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5 thoughts on “Family Meals: A Pathway to Good Outcomes or a Waste of Time?

  1. When the kids were home, we always had daily suppers together and they loved it. Each had the opportunity to talk about their day, whether horrid or great. They are all away at school now, and each talk about how they miss it, so when they are home for break, we are all sitting down at the table together and chatting about our day.

    1. Exactly! When we go to either my parents’ or my in-laws’ house with the kids we all sit down for dinner and these are awesome times. I really want my kids to have that, but it’s time consuming and it’s an effort. I was happy to see it’s probably a worth-while effort 🙂

  2. We have family dinners every day, i.e. our family of 5. During the weekend we also spend the lunches together. I consider that meal time is quality family time. It’s the time to communicate, to enforce values etc., as you said.
    As my parents and inlaws live in other countries, we only meet every 3-4 months for those kind of “family meals”. But they are very important too.

    1. Wow, every day dinners and weekend lunches – good for you! Invariantly, there’s always at least one evening a week at my house that someone is not at the table. My kids are fairly small though, so someone has to sit with them when they eat anyway. I hope I can keep the family meals up when they are older and don’t need a parent to cut their food 🙂

  3. I know that some friends don’t gather all the family together every day, but for our family this is one of the most important family times. My kids are 6 and 10. It’s not only the time when we share meals that’s important, but also the time to prepare the meals, setting the table etc. It’s like “the” moment my children can have a one on one talk with me. Especially during the week when they have after school activities, homework etc..

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