“The statistics are clear,” Nancy Gibbs wrote in her article for Time magazine in 2006 entitled the Magic of the Family Meal: “Kids who dine with the folks are healthier, happier and better students”. She’s right, there is lots of evidence showing these positive associations, and there are plausible explanations for the benefits, such as a chance for children and parents to talk, and the sense of structure that the ritual provides.
But as Daniel Miller and his colleagues point out in their new study, the supposed benefit of frequent family meals is based on research with limitations. Many studies have been cross-sectional snap-shots in time – so it’s possible that frequent family meals are merely a proxy for other relevant factors, such as warmer family relations or parental wealth and education. And the causal direction could run backwards. Maybe parents are more inclined to dine with children who are happier and better behaved.
Miller’s team have conducted a comprehensive, longitudinal study using data that was collected from 1998 – when 21,400 participating US children were aged 5 years – to 2007, by which time the average age of the remaining 9,700 participants was 13.6. At five time points during that period, the children’s parents were surveyed about how often they ate as a family at breakfast and dinner; the children’s reading and maths abilities were assessed; and teachers were surveyed about the children’s behaviour.
The results were clear – there was little or no evidence (depending on the precise analysis used) of any association between more family meals at earlier time points and better outcomes later, in terms of the children’s academic abilities or good behaviour. “Our results suggest that the findings of previous work regarding frequency of family meals and adolescent outcomes should be viewed with some caution,” the researchers said.
But we shouldn’t be too hasty about dismissing the value of family meals. This study comes with its own caveats. Chief among these is that the children were younger than in most other studies on this issue. Relevant here is that past research has linked frequent family meals with outcomes such as less substance abuse among older teenagers – a potential benefit that was not addressed in this study given the younger sample. Another problem, acknowledged by the researchers, was the reliance on parental reports about the frequency of family meal times. A suspiciously high number of parents reported having family meals every day of the week. If they were lying it could have affected the trustworthiness of the results, although the researchers think this is unlikely based on some checks they made of their data.
Taken altogether, Miller and his colleagues said their study should be seen as “an extension rather than a repudiation of previous work”. Their cautious conclusion is that “the magnitude of the effect of family meal frequency may be less than suggested by previous work.”
Daniel Miller, Jame Waldfogel, and Wen-Jui Han (2012). Family meals and child academic and behavioural outcomes. Child Development : 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01825.x