The power of family meals

06 March 2018
family eating at the table

Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new study shows.

A Université de Montréal study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics finds that eating meals together leads to better fitness and social skills in later childhood.

The researchers looked at children in the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development who have been followed since they were five-months old.  

At age 6, their parents started reporting on whether or not they had family meals together. Then at age 10, parents, teachers and the children themselves provided information on the children's lifestyle habits and their psycho-social well-being.

The researchers found that when the family meal environment quality was better at age 6:

  • Higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption were observed at age 10
  • Better social skills were observed at age 10 as the children were less likely to self-report being physical aggressive, oppositional or delinquent.

Lead researcher Professor Linda Pagani says in the past research has suggested positive links between eating family meals together and child and adolescent health.

However, it has been difficult to determine whether this was simply because these families were healthier to begin with, but because this was a longitudinal study the researchers were able to eliminate other factors.

“The presence of parents during mealtimes likely provides young children with first-hand 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.

“Our findings suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality, but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children’s well-being,” she says.  

Professor Pagani says the research suggests that family meals may have long-term influences on children’s physical and mental well-being and should be encouraged.  

“At a time when fewer families in Western countries are having meals together, it would be especially opportune now for this practice to be encouraged.  Family meals could be touted as advantageous in public-information campaigns that aim to optimise child development,” she says.