Houston, Texas, USA : A new University of Guelph study has revealed teenagers and young adults who sit down for family dinners—regardless of how well the family unit manages daily routines, communicates and connects emotionally—are more likely to have healthier eating habits than if they graze or fend for themselves at suppertime.
“Gathering around the dinner table is sort of a magical thing,” said lead researcher Kathryn Walton, dietitian and U of G Ph.D. student who worked on the study with family relations and applied nutrition professor Jess Haines.
“It’s a time when families can slow down from their busy days to talk, spend time together and problem-solve. It’s also a time that parents can model healthful eating behaviours.”
The researchers found that when families sit down together, adolescents and young adults eat more fruits and veggies and consume fewer fast-food and takeout items.
The study to be published Nov. 21 in JAMA Network Open looked at more than 2,700 participants 14 to 24 years of age who were living with their parents in 2011. They were asked how often they sat down for dinner with their families, how well their family functions, and about their consumption of fruit and vegetables, sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food and takeout food.
The study found that family dinners are associated with better dietary intake for adolescents from both high and low functioning families.
“To reap the many benefits of family dinners, the meal doesn’t have to be a big drawn-out affair,” said Haines. “Even if it’s something you pull out of the freezer, add a bagged salad on the side and you’ll have a decent nutritional meal.”
Walton said many teens and young adults living at home are busy with evening extracurricular activities or part-time jobs, making it hard to find time for dinner with family members. But finding that time once a day—even if it’s breakfast together—can be just as effective.
She also said when family members participate in helping to prepare food, they are more likely to eat it. Getting the whole family involved helps cut down on prep-time and teaches adolescents important food skills. Every meal together counts, start with one and sit down together more frequently as the family schedule allows.
Walton, who is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, said she hopes to study ways to make it easier for busy families to have meals together. She said prepping weekly meals on the weekend can help families avoid heading for the drive-through window when bellies start to grumble.
“Our research found that family dinners are a great way to improve the dietary intake of the whole family, regardless of how well the family functions together,” said Walton. “Preparing and enjoying a meal together can also help families bond. It’s a win-win.”
Citation: JAMA Network Open. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5217
A second study found that teens who dine with their families may be slimmer adults:
Teens who dine with their families may be slimmer adults
For those teens who try to avoid spending time with their parents and siblings, new research suggests that sitting down for family meals might help them stay slim as adults.
Despite everyone’s busy schedules, researchers found that just one or two gatherings around the kitchen table each week were well worth the effort.
“There are numerous distractions that could keep families from having family meals. However, this study shows that even trying to have a few family meals a week could be beneficial for guarding against overweight and obesity in adulthood,” noted study author Jerica Berge, an assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in Minneapolis.
Using data from a 10-year study involving more than 2,000 teenagers, the researchers examined variables that could affect young people’s weight, such as diet and physical activity. The teens were asked how often they sat down for family meals. The researchers also recorded each teen’s body mass index—a measurement that determines whether a person is a healthy weight for their height.
After a decade, 51 percent of the teens involved in the study were overweight and 22 percent were obese overall, the study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics found.
The researchers noted that when the study began, 15 percent of the teens said they never ate family meals. Of those teens, 60 percent were overweight at the 10-year follow up and 29 percent were obese.
Meanwhile, among the teens that reported eating between one and five family meals per week, only 47 percent to 51 percent were overweight a decade later, and 19 percent to 22 percent were obese.
So, how do family meals help prevent weight gain? The protective effect is likely due to a combination of factors, according to Berge. “Although we don’t know exactly why having family meals is protective, family meals may provide a combination of activities such as opportunities for healthful eating, connection among family members, creating a supportive environment for emotion regulation and a sense of security that give children the ability to regulate their own eating behaviors in their day-to-day lives,” she explained.
Research has shown that American children and teens sit down for an average of about two to four family meals per week, according to Berge. She noted this includes breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner.
Another study Berge conducted, which was published earlier this week in the journal Pediatrics, found that calm, positive family meals might help a child avoid becoming overweight or obese.
One expert noted that her clients are really trying to carve out time for family meals.
“The ’50s were the epitome of the family meal,” explained Kristi King, a clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. “As society became more fast-paced, we found ourselves drifting away from the family meal time. Now, in practice, I see families very much wanting to try and slow down and reinstitute the family meal on a regular basis.”
For busy families, having just one family meal is a great place to start, Berge pointed out. “It may not matter which day of the week it occurs or that it is the dinner meal. The important thing is to start making family meals a regular occurrence,” she said.
Limiting distractions can also help, advised King.
“Just one meal can give families the opportunity to ‘check-in,’ but that is assuming technology takes a backseat during meal time,” she said. “Kids learn by watching their parents. So parents should set the example they wish their children to follow. Try having the whole family disconnect for 30 minutes during meal time and actually having a conversation.”
King also pointed out that meals at home are typically lower in calories and contain more fruits and vegetables.
While the study found an association between family meals and a lowered risk of obesity in adulthood, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
A third study found that A family meal a day may keep obesity away:
A family meal a day may keep obesity away
Increasing rates of adolescent obesity and the likelihood that obesity will carry forward into adulthood, have led to various preventive initiatives. It has been suggested that family meals, which tend to include fruits, vegetables, calcium, and whole grains, could be protective against obesity. In a new study scheduled for publication in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers studied whether frequent family meals during adolescence were protective for overweight and obesity in adulthood.
Jerica M. Berge, PhD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE, and colleagues from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University used data from a 10-year longitudinal study (2,287 subjects), Project EAT (Eating and Activity among Teens), to examine weight-related variables (e.g., dietary intake, physical activity, weight control behaviors) among adolescents. Questions were asked to assess family meal frequency and body mass index. According to Dr. Berge, “It is important to identify modifiable factors in the home environment, such as family meals, that can protect against overweight/obesity through the transition to adulthood.”
Fifty-one percent of the subjects were overweight and 22% were obese. Among adolescents who reported that they never ate family meals together, 60% were overweight and 29% were obese at the 10-year follow-up. Overall, all levels of baseline family meal frequency, even having as few as 1-2 family meals a week during adolescence, were significantly associated with reduced odds of overweight or obesity at the 10-year follow-up compared with those reporting never having had family meals during adolescence. Results also showed a stronger protective effect of family meal frequency on obesity among black young adults compared with white young adults. However, the limited significant interactions overall by race/ethnicity suggest that the protective influence of family meals for adolescents spans all races/ethnicities.
Family meals may be protective against obesity or overweight because coming together for meals may provide opportunities for emotional connections among family members, the food is more likely to be healthful, and adolescents may be exposed to parental modeling of healthful eating behaviors. As noted by Dr. Berge, “Informing parents that even having 1 or 2 family meals per week may protect their child from overweight or obesity in young adulthood would be important.” Using this information, public health and health care professionals who work with adolescents can give parents another tool in the fight against obesity.
The family that eats together, benefits
No doubt that work, school and outside activities can make it hard to schedule regular family dinners. But research has shown that eating together on a regular basis helps to bond families and build good communication.
For children, the benefits range from better grades to getting along well with others. Kids and adults alike are also more likely to eat healthy meals and less likely to be overweight.
When busy schedules make it hard for everyone to sit down to dinner, use other meals to build togetherness. For instance, get everyone up 15 minutes early for a breakfast sit-down, or plan a regular weekend brunch where everyone pitches in. When dinner has to be fast food, eat at the restaurant instead of doing a pickup so you still have the chance to sit and talk, even if only for a few minutes.
There are also plenty of ways to build togetherness in addition to mealtime. Schedule regular outdoor activities, like a weekend walk on a nature trail or an afternoon at the playground. Make plans for a regular indoor activity, like family game night. Or, find a hobby everyone could enjoy. Perhaps take a vote on the activity, and then let each family member choose a role that will keep them involved.
The goal: Building togetherness, whether at the dinner table or beyond.
Science says eat with your kids
As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit. And that nightly dinner doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal that took three hours to cook, nor does it need to be made with organic arugula and heirloom parsnips.
For starters, researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Older children also reap intellectual benefits from family dinners. For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
Other researchers reported a consistent association between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance. Adolescents who ate family meals 5 to 7 times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
Does a body good
Children who eat regular family dinners also consume more fruits, vegetables, vitamins and micronutrients, as well as fewer fried foods and soft drinks. And the nutritional benefits keep paying dividends even after kids grow up: young adults who ate regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own.
Some research has even found a connection between regular family dinners and the reduction of symptoms in medical disorders, such as asthma. The benefit might be due to two possible byproducts of a shared family meal: lower anxiety and the chance to check in about a child’s medication compliance.
It isn’t just the presence of healthy foods that leads to all these benefits. The dinner atmosphere is also important. Parents need to be warm and engaged, rather than controlling and restrictive, to encourage healthy eating in their children.
But all bets are off if the TV is on during dinner. In one study, American kindergartners who watched TV during dinner were more likely to be overweight by the time they were in third grade. The association between TV-watching during dinner and overweightness in children was also reported in Sweden, Finland and Portugal.
In addition, a stack of studies link regular family dinners with lowering a host of high risk teenage behaviors parents fear: smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. In one study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than church attendance or good grades.
There are also associations between regular family dinners and good behaviors, not just the absence of bad ones. In a New Zealand study, a higher frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive moods in adolescents. Similarly, other researchers have shown that teens who dine regularly with their families also have a more positive view of the future, compared to their peers who don’t eat with parents.
What’s so magical about mealtime?
In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch. So dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other. In a survey, American teens were asked when they were most likely to talk with their parents: dinner was their top answer. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them. This daily mealtime connection is like a seat belt for traveling the potholed road of childhood and adolescence and all its possible risky behaviors.
Of course, the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality. If family members sit in stony silence, if parents yell at each other, or scold their kids, family dinner won’t confer positive benefits. Sharing a roast chicken won’t magically transform parent-child relationships. But, dinner may be the one time of the day when a parent and child can share a positive experience – a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story – and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.