Sometimes the simplest changes in the family can make a significant difference.

Several recent studies indicate that there is evidence that family meals can have an impact on children’s eating habits, diet and health.  For example: The Family Meals with Young Kids was an online Australian study, completed by parents in 2014.  The study measured the frequency of shared meals across the day, duration and location of meal times, parental modelling, and parents’ perceived importance of the evening meal. It found that the frequency of having everyone in the family present for the evening meal was greater in the higher socioeconomic families.  Most children in these families consumed breakfast (73%), lunch (56%) and dinner (82%) at a table.  Less than half of the children (36%) watched TV during meals more than once a day.

A further study published in the Canadian Family Physician, Feb. 2015, entitled, Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth, found that a positive relationship existed between frequent family meals and increasing self-esteem and school success. Irregular family meals were associated with disorderly eating, alcohol and substance use, violent behaviour, and feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide in adolescents. These surprising conclusions were backed up by another study in the U.S., Associations between Early Family Meal Environment Quality and Later Well-Being in School-Age Children, published in 2017 in a journal by National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a branch of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. This study found a positive link between family meals and child and adolescent health.

Incredibly, according to this study, family meal environment quality at age 6 predicted higher levels of general fitness, and lower levels of soft drink consumption, physical aggression, oppositional behaviour, non-aggressive delinquency and reactive aggression at age 10.

Further, a study published in February 2018, entitled Intergenerational Transmission of Family Meal Patterns from Adolescence to Parenthood:  Longitudinal Associations with Parents’ Dietary Intake, Weight-related Behaviors, and Psychosocial Well-being, conducted at the University of Minnesota Medical School, found that young adult parents who reported having regular family meals as adolescents and as parents, or who started having regular family meals with their own families, reported more household dietary, weight-related, and psychosocial advantages compared to young adults who never reported having regular family meals.

All these findings suggest that family meals have long term positive influences on children’s well-being.

The problem, however, is that family meals are declining.  This is not surprising, especially in families with young children, with children’s extra-circular activities, such as hockey and soccer practices, music lessons, etc., limiting family and meal preparation time.  This problem increases when both parents are in the paid workforce.

According to an article in an American magazine, The Atlantic, June 13, 2019, a recent survey of more than 1,000 American adults showed that the family dinner table is becoming a far less popular place to eat.  These findings will no doubt apply to Canada as well.  The Atlantic survey found that less than half of those surveyed said they eat at a table when eating at home, and instead, the couch and the bedroom were more popular places to eat dinner.  Not surprisingly, 30% of respondents cited the couch as their primary place to eat at home where the TV and other screens are available, with other members of the family eating separately. According to a 2013 U.S. nationally representative National Public Radio poll, only half of American children sat down to eat dinner as a family on a typical evening. This survey has been confirmed by other surveys, such as the one commissioned in 2019 by the manufacturers of Pretzel Crisps, which found that 49% of Americans say that they regularly watch television while eating. This is called “zombie eating” which means staring at a screen while eating. According to this survey, the average American only eats three meals per week at their kitchen table. A similar situation appears to be occurring in the UK. A recent survey there about family habits found that a third of the families in the U.K. sit in complete silence during mealtimes and that 44% say they stare at their iPhones during their meal.

It seems that technology has so transformed our lives that family members are retreating into his or her sterile world, when one in five respondents in the U.K. survey reported that they would rather be watching television than talking with family members!

This troubling situation has been intensified by busy families often relying on ready-made food options, which makes people less inclined to set the table and gather everyone around it.  Also, modern homes are moving away from a formal dining room as a separate space, with an increase in open kitchens.  Whatever the reason, it seems that dinner time together at the table is being reduced by families, to the detriment of the children’s well-being.

Given that psychosocial dysfunction is one of the most common chronic conditions among children and adolescents, families should be educated on the benefits of having regular meals together.