The importance of eating together is often suggested by parenting and family experts. It’s encouraged as a strategy to stay connected with your kids. It’s something I promote in my own home even though it is sometimes a challenge with after-school activities.
When reading the memoir of my favorite psychiatry writer Dr. Irvin Yalom, I read with sadness that Dr. Yalom rarely ate a meal with his family in what was a lonely childhood. Instead, he served himself a meal each evening from a pot his mother left on the stove while his parents worked. If Dr. Yalom became a reasonable human being without eating an evening meal with his family, could the parenting experts be overstating things, I wondered?
A large recent longitudinal study of 1,492 children in Quebec studied the benefits of families’ sharing evening meals. Published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the study found that there were long-term physical and mental health benefits for children who routinely eat their meals together with their family.
"We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the same year," says Researcher Dr. Mary Pagnini. "And we followed-up regularly as they grew up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age six and child well-being at age 10."
Previous research failed to determine whether children who ate with their family were healthier to begin with. The design of this study allowed researchers to look at children whose health status had been studied since the age of five months.
"There is a handful of research suggesting positive links between eating family meals together frequently and child and adolescent health," says Pagani. "In the past, researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier, to begin with. And measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience."
The child participants in this study were part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. At age six, parents were required to report on whether or not they had family meals together. At age 10, researchers collected information about the children's lifestyle habits, academic achievement and social adjustment from parents, teachers, and the children themselves.
The advantage of using this group of children was ideal, according to co-researcher Marie-Josée Harbec: "Because we had a lot of information about the children before age six – such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother's education and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and functioning – we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results."
The benefits of eating together
The study found that children who had a quality family meal environment at age six had higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10. These children were less likely to be physically aggressive, oppositional, or delinquent at age 10. This suggests family meals help promote better social skills and self-regulation.
Pagnini concluded: "The presence of parents during mealtimes likely provides young children with firsthand social interaction, discussions of social issues and day-to-day concerns, and vicarious learning of pro-social interactions in a familiar and emotionally secure setting. Experiencing positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better communication skills with people outside of the family unit. Our findings suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality, but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children's well-being."
According to the results of this study, maintaining a family mealtime is important for your child’s long term well-being. Not only does it create a space for daily connection, it will likely benefit your child’s social skills, ability to self-regulate, and physical health. For me, it makes the daily “what shall we eat” seem worth it somehow. I plan to continue to make shared evening meals a priority. How about you?