The concept of "the family meal" remains elusive — more nostalgia than reality — for many modern families. But it's still worth striving for, according to a recent analysis by public health researchers at Tufts, who found that frequent family meals can reduce the likelihood that teenagers, particularly girls, will develop problems ranging from alcohol and tobacco use to eating disorders and depression.
I asked the lead researcher, Margie Skeer, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, a little about her analysis, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Here, lightly edited, is what she said:
RZ: What happens at family meals that may be protective against risky behavior, like substance abuse, or other mental health problems?
MS: If family meals are frequent and consistent, mealtime can serve as a conduit for open, ongoing communication, where people come together to not only eat, but to talk about their day. In this regard, mealtimes can provide for a baseline level of communication, whereby parents/guardians can learn about the everyday, ongoing aspects of their children’s lives — both important and ordinary. This can create an environment that allows for the development of three crucial features of the parent-child relationship.
First, parents having conversations about everyday things with their children can facilitate a basic comfort level that enhances the process of communicating in general, which provides a natural framework for discussing more sensitive, difficult topics, such as substance use. If parents and children fail to communicate on a basic level, parents can be uncomfortable bringing up such emotionally charged topics; and even when they do, children may be less likely to engage in these conversations. Second, assuming the relationship is not a contentious one, having meals together where everyone talks about their day indicates to children that parents are making them — and their interests — a priority. This conveys a sense of trust, which is critical for both initiating and engaging in what may be difficult conversations. Finally, everyday encounters and dedicated time during mealtimes with children can help parents identify changes in patterns, such as clothing, friends and grades, which all can be indicators of problems that could result in or from substance use and/or other risk behaviors.
How do you account for the gender differences in the findings, and why might girls get more of a benefit from family meals?
From this research, it is unclear what accounts for the gender differences. As stated in the article, one possible explanation for this is that there may be differences in how females and males respond to family dynamics. It has been demonstrated that compared to males, females tend to be more influenced by their family environments and that certain characteristics such as connectedness and stability may impact females more than males. If family meals either help create a more connected, stable family environment, or if they result from families with these characteristics, this may help account for the gender differences in the effect of family meals on adolescent risk behaviors. However, the current literature that was reviewed does not examine the mechanisms underlying the relationship between family meals and risk behaviors, nor does it pursue explanations of differences by gender. Therefore, additional research needs to be conducted to elucidate these mechanisms.
How many times a week do you need to eat together to get this benefit?
Many studies compare the effects of eating five or more family meals together per week with zero or one. However, it is less clear if the benefits of eating family meals are as strong compared with fewer than five. At this point, it is recommended that parents try to eat at least five meals with their children per week. However, it appears better to eat any meals together rather than none. Regardless, if it is true that family meals create an environment for open communication within families, than we would recommend that more is better, even if it is two, rather than one.
Additionally, trying for at least 30 minutes gives parents enough time to have a relaxed conversation. However, quality time looks different for each family.
And is there something about eating that makes the benefits more powerful, as opposed to say, just sitting around and talking in some other context?
Ultimately, family meals offer an environment that can make communication significantly more accessible. It is not the meal per se that is important, but more so the dialogue and interpersonal exchanges that occur at mealtimes that create the highly beneficial protective effect. Mealtimes provide a natural and consistent time when children can expect to be together with their parents, which is what can make it so powerful. However, due to work schedules, child activities, and other things that can get in the way, not all families are able to eat meals together on a regular basis. If that is the case, it is recommended that parents try to find at least 30 uninterrupted minutes each day to talk with their children, even, for example, if it is in the car on the way to and from school or activities.
Readers, how do you fit family meals into your busy week? And do you see improvements in your kids' behavior when you spend mealtime together? Please let us know.
This program aired on September 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.