A new University of Minnesota study challenges the popular notion that family dinners do everything from improving children's eating habits to reducing depression and drug abuse.
Reviewing a survey of 18,000 adolescents, researchers found that children who ate regularly with their parents did have lower rates of mental health and behavior problems. But those children also had parents who regularly exhibited other character-building qualities.
Other children fared as well if their parents had these same traits, even in the absence of regular family meals, according to study co-author Ann Meier.
"The family meal isn't the magic bullet," Meier said. "Families who can regularly pull off a dinner are probably good families in lots of other ways."
Some of the strongest research linking dinners and good outcomes in kids comes from the U's own Project EAT research team. Meier said her study didn't challenge that team's core findings - that family dinners can reduce obesity and eating disorders - because it only looked at rates of depression, delinquency and substance abuse in children.
Project EAT director Dianne Neumark-Sztainer said the findings are consistent. It might be the behavior and communication of families during dinner that is protective, she said. Her group is currently videotaping families at meal time to discover the qualities at their tables that are beneficial.
An unscientific Facebook query turned up parents who work feverishly to preserve meals. One parent, Jennifer, blocks her work Outlook calendar to protect meal time. Rather than making side dishes, Erika streamlines the process by tossing as many food groups as possible into a single pot.
Meier said her study doesn't invalidate family dinners. For some parents, dinner might be the best chance to connect with their kids and support them. But if parents are able to connect with their kids despite lacking regular dinners? "Then maybe you shouldn't feel so guilty about that," Meier said, "about not pulling off the dinner."
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