New Study Questions Family Dinner Link to Well-Being

by Susan Flynn

The family that eats together thrives together. Or so parents have been told for years. But afamily meal new Cornell University study questions whether the touted social and health benefits of sitting down together to eat dinner are as strong as previously suggested.

“We find that most of the association between family meals and teen wellbeing is due to other aspects of the family environment,” says Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and lead author of the study.

In other words, family meals alone cannot create stronger bonds between teens and their parents. Having healthy relationships has more to do with economics, time spent together and the closeness of the relationship in general.

Musick and co-author Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that families with both biological parents in the home, a non-employed mother, higher income, and better family relationships ate together more frequently.

Controlling for the quality of family relationships in particular explained much of the family dinner’s association with teen depressive symptoms, substance use and delinquency – three factors typically examined in family meal studies. Estimates are based on a sample of about 18,000 children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health.

“Meals may afford a regular and positive context for parents to connect with children emotionally, to monitor their social and academic activities, and to convey values and expectations. This is what we suspect is driving any causal relationship between family dinners and child well being,” says Musick, in a prepared statement about the study.

“But, family dinners also appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities, and it’s unclear how well family dinners would work unbundled from the rest of that package.”
In the future, the study authors want to look beyond how often families eat together and examine the impact of talking, television, texting, eating the same food, or helping in the kitchen on the benefits of family meals.

The study will be published in the June edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Posted May 2012