Family dinners are overrated, say researchers

Nadine Bells
Shine On

New research out of Cornell University is challenging the notion that family dinners are important for healthy childhood development.

While the researchers found that family dinners did help adolescents score better on a range of well-being indicators than their peers who didn't sit down for dinner with their parents, they also found that the benefits weakened over time, and didn't carry over into adulthood.

The study -- to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family -- examined a sample of 18,000 American teens from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and found that the beneficial effects of family dinners on teen depression, substance abuse and delinquency was not as strong a previously assumed.

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If anything, the rituals and practices of families with good relationships mattered most. Family dinners on their own did not necessitate well-being.

"We find that most of the association between family meals and teen well-being is due to other aspects of the family environment. Analyses that follow children over time lend even weaker evidence for causal effects of family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being," lead researcher Kelly Musick, Ph.D., says in a press release.

"Dinner tends to be a time where through food you can create a lot of comfort," Musick tells the Globe and Mail. "If what matters is finding a context where you can connect with your kids and build some routine and ritual in which people feel comfortable, you could probably do it some other way. But in this harried world, it would have to be deliberate."

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The researchers hope to expand their study to determine how factors like texting, talking and watching television affect the benefits of family mealtime.

Earlier this month, a study published in the journal Pediatrics claimed that kids who eat with their families at least three times a week were 12 per cent less likely be be overweight. They were also less likely to develop eating disorders.

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