The Benefits of Frequent Family Meals

March 1, 2008

In today's hectic world, where parents and children alike are rushing fromone activity to the next, it is difficult to get meals organized-let alone tofind time to eat together as a family. While this only gets more complicatedas children reach their adolescent years, recent studies have stressedthe importance of these joint meals, especially for teenagers.

Teens who eat frequently with their family are significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, abuse prescription drugs, drink alcohol, or use tobacco . . .

In today's hectic world, where parents and children alike are rushing fromone activity to the next, it is difficult to get meals organized-let alone tofind time to eat together as a family. While this only gets more complicatedas children reach their adolescent years, recent studies have stressedthe importance of these joint meals, especially for teenagers.

Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues1 recently looked at the effect of frequentfamily meals on the development of disordered eating among teenagers.During the 1998-1999 school year, the authors surveyed 4746 Minnesotateenagers in middle and high school, 2516 of whom again completedsurveys 5 years later. The surveys included questions about the frequencyof family meals, unhealthy weight control behaviors, chronic dieting, andbinge eating with loss of control.

The authors examined the relationship between family meal frequency at the first survey andthe presence of disordered eating at the time of the second survey. Overall, disordered eatingpatterns were more common in girls than boys-regardless of family meal frequency. However,girls who frequently ate with their families had fewer overall disordered eating behaviors thanthose who ate with their families less often. While the difference among the groups for many ofthese behaviors did not reach statistical significance, an association was seen.

A statistically significant decrease was seen in extreme weight control behaviors, includingself-induced vomiting or the use of diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics among girls who ate withtheir families 5 or more times a week. This relationship held even after the authors controlledfor socioeconomic factors, family "connectedness," baseline extreme weight control measures,parental encouragement of dieting, and body mass index. Although the findings among girls inthe study were impressive, the same results were not found among teenage boys.

Other recent studies, including one conducted by the National Center on Addiction and SubstanceAbuse (CASA) at Columbia University, have also shown the beneficial effects of familymeals.2 The 2007 CASA study showed that teens who ate with their family 5 or more times a weekwere significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, abuse prescription drugs, drink alcohol, or usetobacco than teens who participated in family meals less frequently. The study also found thatteens with frequent family dinners were more likely to say that they received mostly A's and B'son their report cards.

Despite the limitations of these studies, such as the dependence on self-reporting, the messageshould not be missed: frequent family meals serve an invaluable purpose in the lives of ourchildren. By providing kids and teens with a forum to discuss their days and the activities intheir lives, parents can maintain open communication. Healthy eating patterns can be modeled,and kids can learn to be a part of meal planning and preparation. As pediatricians, we should encouragefamily meals because they can foster a strong and supportive relationship among parentsand their children.

References:

  • Neumark-Sztainer D, Eisenberg ME, Fulkerson JA, et al. Family meals and disordered eating in adolescents: longitudinal findings from project EAT. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162:17-22.

  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. CASA* report finds teens likelier to abuse prescription drugs, use illegal drugs, smoke, drink when family dinners infrequent. Available at: http://www.casafamilyday.org/PDFs/ reportIV.pdf. Accessed February 11, 2008.