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family meals don’t matter? not so fast!

Posted by on Sep 26, 2012 in Blog Posts | 4 comments

Food for Thought: Do Family Meals Really Make a Difference for Child Academics or Behavior?

This and other recent articles and editorials based on a recent study are suggesting that family meals don’t really matter as much as we think. From the NYT editorial, “So if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.” Hmmm, this caught my attention.

From the Food for thought article linked to above:
“We find no relationship between family breakfasts or family dinners and any child outcomes — reading, math and science scores, or behavior problems,” says Miller.

They suggest that if you can’t make family meals happen, talking in the car on the way to soccer is just as good. Is it?

Now, it is a valuable question. Are family meals what matter, or something else? Maybe quality time together, attachment, or parenting style matter more in terms of child outcomes. If it’s really parenting style and not family meals so much, and we can teach effective parenting, maybe that would be a place to put more resources? I’m not opposed to challenging assumptions, even about my beloved family meal, but we do have a responsibility to do good research that answers the questions we want to know.

Now, consider this. Here is how the study defined a “family meal.”

“On how many of the past 7 days was at least one of your parents in the room with you while you ate your evening meal?”

This could be interpreted as standing around the island with everyone eating different foods, watching TV, playing video games, in front of the TV. To me, it misses the very essence of the family meal.

The study is based on a questionable and vague definition of family meal— the very thing they are trying to study the effects of. In my mind then, the conclusions are suspect at best, yet get reported in the lay press as, family meals not so important after all, so don’t sweat it!

Just a quick reminder to take anything you read with a grain of salt.

How do you define a family meal? Do you think this question cuts it or not? BTW, I still think there is immense value in sitting with people you love and sharing food and good company. I felt like I had to put this out there since so many families are working hard to have pleasant family meals. I don’t want anyone to read this headline and feel duped. I think family meals are critical for helping kids learn to feel good about food, and to be happy and healthy people.

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  1. closetpuritan

    Even before we got to their definition of a family meal, I was thinking, “Yes, but they didn’t measure eating competence. Wouldn’t that be the thing most strongly affected by the family meal, and worth the effort of the family meal all by itself?”

  2. Dawn

    I agree. Family meals in our house are everyone at the table at the same time with NO TV or other media (including books). Nobody has to eat everything and often we only get the company of the 2 1/2 year old for 5 or 6 minutes but we all sit down together.

  3. Heather

    To me, this question doesn’t define a family meal, which I consider all of us sitting around the table eating a meal together, talking with each other, with no distractions (TV, books/magazines, or computer). Also, I didn’t read the study so I don’t know if they addressed this or not, but I’m more interested in whether our family meals help us stay close and help my son become a competent eater, than in if they improve his academics or his behavior.