The family meal is often touted for its social and health benefits, but a new Cornell University study questions the association, finding that the perceived benefits may not be as strong or as lasting once a number of factors are controlled for.
"We find that most of the association between family meals and teen well-being is due to other aspects of the family environment. Analyses that follow children over time lend even weaker evidence for causal effects of family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being," said Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and lead author of "Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being."
Musick and co-author Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that the ability to manage a regular family dinner is in part facilitated by resources such as time and money, and in part a proxy for other family characteristics, including time together, closeness, and communication. Families with both biological parents present, a non-employed mother, higher income, and better family relationships ate together more frequently. Controlling for the quality of family relationships in particular explained much of the family dinner's association with teen depressive symptoms, substance use, and delinquency – three factors typically examined in family meal studies. Only some of these associations held up to analyses of adolescent outcomes over time.
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