Family meal times are an opportunity for families to come together, check in with each other, share information on how the day is going, and generally just touch base in our fast-paced lives. Children learn societal values and cultural norms around food and eating; family values are imparted; and connections are strengthened.
Research has also linked families who eat together frequently with increased child and youth health. What has not been clear is if families who ate together more frequently were just healthier to begin with or if it was because they ate together that the children were healthier.
This recently published study out of the University of Montreal looks at the relationship between meal times eaten together as a family and the associated physical and mental health benefits over a ten year span. PhD student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, studied a cohort of children born between 1997 and 1998 from 5 months of age until 10 years of age. Studying families since almost the birth of their child and over such a long period of time allowed them to adjust the findings to account for many factors (such as cognitive abilities, child temperament, family configuration, maternal education, and depression) that previous studies weren’t able to. The families started reporting data on meal times when the children were 6 years old. When they reached 10 years of age, parents, teachers and the children, reported on their lifestyle habits, academic achievement, and social adjustment.
The results show that when the quality of the family meal environment is better, children consume less soft drinks, have a higher level of fitness and increased social skills (reporting less aggression and oppositional behaviour).
Setting the intention to eat two or three times together a week can go a long way to raising healthy, socially and emotionally resilient children. With busy families, it is difficult to find a time when everyone is home and can sit down together, but I encourage you to try to do it when you can as the payoff is tremendous.