Thursday, June 3, 2010

Family dinner as public health intervention: we need to know more

Is family breakfast as good as family dinner? Warning: This is a research question.

Family dinner is important, almost everyone agrees. There are many "feel-good" stories about family dinner scattered through cyberspace as well as hard-boiled facts about how kids who eat with their families fare better on a variety of measures. I, and others, even argue that family dinner can be good for the parents and significant others involved, too. All this, true. But is that all there is to it?

Lately, I've been trying to think about family dinner more like a social scientist or public health researcher. (That's my background, after all.) If you drill down into the concept of family dinner, you can think of eating dinner together as an intervention. Studies show that the "intervention" of family dinner does indeed contribute to better outcomes on a wide variety of measures, including lower engagement in risky behaviors like underage drinking, better relationships with parents and siblings, and reduced risk of suicide (data here). This is an important message to promote, but why does family dinner work? How does it work? Can we decipher what aspects of family dinner are critical to its overall success? Can breakfast count too?

The National Children's Health Survey collects data on how often children eat together with their families as well as a variety of outcome measures. Several university research centers (CASA, University of Minnesota, Harvard, to name a few) focus on the topic of family nutrition, family dynamics, and family dinner as related to specific behaviors. There is some great research out there, but the specifics rarely make it to the general audiences of parents struggling to get meals to the table or to make mealtime enjoyable, not just a battle.

I personally believe that family dinner is an answer to many critical issues we experience personally and that we experience as a society. I know it is difficult for busy families to pull it off, but I feel the effort is well worth it. Family dinner doesn't really lend itself to policy change, but it is connected to positive health behavior. Basically, I'm arguing that this is a topic that is worthy of more in-depth research, study, and discussion on a broad level. We need to figure out why family dinner works, how it works, and how best to support families of all income levels in creating mealtime traditions that support growth and development for kids, parents, and families overall. 

Child Trends Data Bank on Family Meals
Family Meals Matter Facebook Fan Group


  1. Yes! More research beyond the obvious - that daily moments of eye contact and checking in on the emotional conditions and physical health of the children is important to the parents and fairly easy to do at family meals. I think family dinner (& probably breakfast) is probably measurable as a positive marker for emotional stability and core self esteem in kids who regularly experience the support of being part of an unconditional family-based group, that can, even with complex schedules and financial pressures, give priority to this group activity over work or school or peer groups.

  2. So glad you're doing this Grace—and that I found it. I was pretty passionate about eating dinner together when my kids were growing up, and I really believe it has/had a lot to do with many of their successes, including the ability to comfortably sit with adults and discuss topics both big and small. They're both big cooks now as well, and love having friends over for a home-cooked meal, so I think you're also teaching them the simple joy (and healthfulness) of cooking your own food and sharing it.


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