Family Meals Good Not Only for Kids, But Parents, Too

Charlie Plain | July 10, 2018
A family of four sits at a kitchen table to eat dinner.
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

In recent years, researchers have discovered that children who share frequent meals with their families have better eating habits, family relationships, and mental health. Now, it appears the same may be said for their parents. New findings from the School of Public Health’s ongoing Project EAT study show that parents who frequently eat with their families report increased emotional health and higher quality nutrition.

“This suggests that family meals may provide an opportunity to improve the well-being of the entire family — not just children and young people,” says Jennifer Utter, associate professor at the University of Auckland, Project EAT researcher, and lead author of a new paper detailing the findings.

The paper was published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

Project EAT — Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults —  is a study, started in 1989 by University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, that’s been tracking a large group of people as they mature from adolescence into adulthood. The aim of the study is to learn more about their nutritional, physical, and mental well-being as they grow. One of Project EAT’s current areas of research is exploring how eating together influences the health of families.

The findings from the new paper show that parents who eat frequent family meals report:

  • Greater overall family function, such as decision-making and expressing feelings;
  • Stronger relationships with their partners;
  • Lower depressive symptoms;
  • Less stress and greater self-esteem; and
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables than those having infrequent or no family meals.

Many health professionals and community organizations already actively support and encourage families to eat together. Researchers are currently exploring effective strategies to increase the quality and quantity of such meals.

This paper established a connection between parents who report frequent family meals and higher levels of health, but it doesn’t explain it. Additional research is required to see if the well-being of parents and children will improve simply by increasing the frequency of family meals.

Utter is continuing to research how to improve the nutrition and well-being of adolescents and their families by exploring areas such as the importance of developing cooking skills.

The research for this paper was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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