Children who eat their meals with their families on a regular basis are more likely to benefit from long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new study suggests.
Following a cohort of Quebec infants born between 1997 and 1998, Université de Montréal PhD student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, psychoeducation professor Linda Pagani, made the discovery. The findings were published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioural Paediatrics today.
“There is a handful of research suggesting positive links between eating family meals together frequently and child and adolescent health,” Pagani said. “In the past, researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier to begin with. And measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience.”
Associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience
The youngsters in the study had been tracked by researchers when they were 5 months old as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. At the age of six, their parents began reporting on whether they ate family meals together. Parents, teachers, and the children themselves supplied information on the children’s lifestyle habits and psychosocial well-being at the age of ten.
“We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the same year,” Pagani said, “and we followed up regularly as they grew up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age 6 and child well-being at age 10.
” Family meal environment and level of fitness linked
When the quality of the family eating environment was higher at age 6, there were higher levels of overall fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10. These kids also appeared to have better social skills, as they were less likely to self-report as physically aggressive, oppositional, or delinquent at the age of ten.
“Because we had a lot of information about the children before age 6 — such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother’s education and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and functioning — we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results,” said Harbec. “It was really ideal as a situation.”
The presence of parents during mealtimes provides firsthand social interaction
Explained Pagani: “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.
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.” “From a population-health perspective, our findings suggest that family meals have long-term influences on children’s physical and mental well-being,” said Harbec.
At a time when fewer families in Western countries are eating together, the researchers believe it is especially important for psycho-social professionals to support the practice at home – indeed, to make it a priority. In addition, family dinners should be promoted as beneficial in public awareness efforts aimed at improving child development.
Materials provided by the University of Montreal. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Marie-Josée Harbec, Linda S. Pagani. Associations Between Early Family Meal Environment Quality and Later Well-Being in School-Age Children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioural Paediatrics, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000520
The University of Montreal. “Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally: Long-term effects of family meals in early childhood.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 December 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171214092322.htm>.
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