Are Family Dinners Overrated?
One of the most revered concepts by family advocates is family meals. Family dinners are believed to have numerous benefits to family cohesion and to the healthy development of children. Research has pointed out that through the family dinner mechanism, parents can model proper eating habits to their children, ensure that their children have a wider variety of food and an understanding of healthy food options and food preparation procedures. Family meal frequency has been correlated with less junk food and a higher intake of calcium and vitamins. Some studies were able to establish that families that ate together frequently were less likely to have overweight or obese children.
That the members of a family will interact as they have their meals could lead to strengthened family ties, family unity and facilitation of the socialization process. To this extent, family dinners have been associated with more positive family interactions, as they provide an excellent setting for parents to monitor their children’s behaviours and guide and mould them on the same. Family meals also provide an excellent opportunity for communication and to this extent, frequent family dinners have been linked to language acquisition and development in children and to better academic outcomes.
Is Having A Family Dinner That Easy?
However, with today’s erratic work schedules, having dinner as a family can be very inconvenient. It would be very punitive for small children, in particular, to have to wait for their parents to get home from late work shifts so that the whole family can sit down and have a meal together. In fact, it no surprise to find families today in which members have different meal times and different meal menus. Different menus would be mandatory for families where some members have dietary restrictions, for example where one or more members are vegan, have hypertension or are allergic to dairy, gluten etc. Critics of family dinners point out that as long as the family has quality time set aside to bond and hang out, eating together is not necessary. It is more commonsensical to have the family spend time doing mutually pleasant activities like sports, playing charades or weekend camps and hikes than forced daily mealtime routines.
Impact of Family Dinners Overrated?
One recent (and perhaps famous) study that has sought to establish the impact of family dinners on the wellbeing of adolescents found that the role that family dinners play towards the healthy development of the adolescents is at best miniscule. Meier and Musick analysed the effect of family dinners on three aspects; depression, drug and alcohol use and delinquency. The researchers also analysed the effect of family dinners on adolescents (as far as three concepts were concerned) over a year. There was no observable effect on two aspects i.e. drug and alcohol use and delinquency. Lastly, they sought to establish whether family dinners had any long term benefits on adolescents. The correlation was minimal.
Granted, researching the impact of family meals is a cumbersome undertaking. It is a challenge to study the effect of family meals without accounting for factors such as socioeconomic status, family resources, the quality of family relationships and parenting styles all which have an impact on the wellbeing of children. For example, would family dinners benefit children of authoritarian, low-income earning, uneducated parents who actually prefer junk food to home cooked meals? And if yes, to what extent?
What this study did, better than others perhaps, is to try and isolate such family factors in the analysis. This is what makes all the difference. Meier and Musick in the New York Times explain that there were obvious differences between families who ate together frequently and those that did not. Before such factors were held constant, 73% of adolescents who rarely ate with their families reported drug use in the study in comparison to 55% who engaged in daily family dinners. Now, when these factors were controlled, the difference in drug and alcohol consumption between those who seldom had family dinners and those who had them daily saw a reduction, from 18 percentage points to 9.
So what conclusion can we draw from all this? As much as research into the benefits of family dinners is still evolving, it would be imprudent to ignore existent evidence. According to Meier and Musick, the importance of family dinners is in the time that parents use to engage with their children which can of course easily happen outside the meal setting. Without a sense of doubt, family meals do have positive outcomes. But perhaps most importantly is that family dinners should be an essential part of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities.