In the constant rush of work, school, soccer games, PTA meetings, and whatever else families are stacking into an ever-busier schedule, eating meals together can seem impossible. But research shows that it is definitely worth making the time to do so. In fact, as a new study by the Université de Montréal has found, kids who regularly eat dinner with their families tend to be healthier and happier.
This study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, followed a group of Quebec children born between 1997 and 1998. Lead researchers, doctoral student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, Linda Pagani, professor of pyschoeducation, determined that children who regularly eat dinner with their families experience a number of long-term physical and mental health benefits.
Researchers began monitoring children in the study when they were 5 months old, as a part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. When the children reached 6 years of age, parents started reporting on if and when the families had dinner together, according to Science Daily. At age 10, parents, teachers, and children updated researchers on the children's lifestyles and social habits. From there, the researchers used information on the quality of family meals at 6 years old and a child's well-being at 10 years old.
Children who enjoyed higher quality meal times with family at young ages reported higher levels of general fitness and less soft-drink consumption by the time they were 10, according to Science Daily. Additionally, these same children had better social skills, were less physically aggressive or delinquent. Pagani explained to Science Daily how family dinners come into play:
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 prosocial 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.
She went on to explain that family meals not only indicate home environment quality, but are also "easy targets for parent education about improving children's well-being." Teaching families about the significance of having meals together could be a powerful tool towards family improvement.
Researchers have long known the importance of family mealtime. A similar study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week are less likely to struggle with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, do better in school, and report feeling closer to their parents than those who don't routinely eat with family.
But Pagani explained to Science Daily that this study filled an important gap in the research on family dinners. Despite past research that showed a correlation between family meals and health, it was unclear if the families were simply healthier in the beginning regardless of their eating habits. The new insight provided by their research is both timely and important.
With 21st century families opting out of shared meals more often than not, information on their importance may be the boost that Americans need. While often difficult, eating together isn't impossible. Quick and Dirty Tips recommends keeping family meals simple. That is, choosing quality time over complex, gourmet dinners. Pasta and salad is enough. Additionally, families can consider picnicking together when everyone is out instead of rushing home to eat around a physical dinner table. Finally, if family dinners just aren't a reality, making time for family breakfast could be the solution for families with jam-packed evenings.
Regardless of how you do it, spending meal times together is an important part of creating a happy, healthy family. It's a routine that really pays off.
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