The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Dinner-Table Therapy

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

More likely to protect mental health than a psychologist, more effective in suppressing substance abuse than a drug-prevention counselor, more successful in guarding against juvenile delinquency than a police officer, the regular family dinner delivers an impressive range of benefits. Those benefits have recently been substantiated by researchers at Cornell University, who document the sizable advantages enjoyed by teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families. These researchers also identify what kinds of families are most likely to give their adolescent offspring these advantages.

To assess the effects of regularly eating dinner with the family, the Cornell scholars analyze nationally representative data for 13,481 adolescents tracked into young adulthood. By parsing the data, the researchers show that “more frequent family meals were associated with fewer depressive symptoms, lower substance use, and fewer delinquent acts among adolescents. Differences in our outcomes by family dinners were statistically significant . . . [p < 0.05] and appeared reasonably large.”

The researchers then deploy statistical models that take into account sociodemographic variables (including household income) and quality of family relationships. But they still report that “even in our full models, family dinners were both statistically and substantively important” as a predictor of adolescents’ mental health, abstinence from harmful substances, and avoidance of delinquent acts.

Why is the frequency of family dinners such a strong predictor
of positive outcomes among adolescents? The researchers reason that
“eating together may protect children from depression and risky behaviors by providing a regular and comforting context to check in with parents about their day-to-day activities and to connect with them emotionally.”

While it appears that family dinners do benefit adolescent children in remarkable ways, the researchers caution that it would be “naïve to expect to alter family practices ‘by isolating one particular element of family life without acknowledging how families operate as social systems.’ Family dinners may be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities.” Consequently, the Cornell scholars warn that initiatives “aimed at increasing the frequency of family meals may be successful only if they can change the family habits that tend to go along with eating as a family.”

What circumstances favor the “broader package” of favorable dynamics associated with regular family meals? The data indicate that those adolescents most likely to eat meals regularly with their families—and presumably to enjoy the advantages of a “broader package” of favorable family dynamics—tend to live in certain kinds of families. More particularly, the data reveal that “families with both biological parents present, a nonemployed mother, and higher income were overrepresented among those frequently eating together, and stepparent families, single-parent families, and those with a full-time employed mother were underrepresented.”

This new study certainly gives public officials good reason to encourage parents to eat meals regularly with their teenage children. But the authors of this study are wise to recognize that family meals are indicative of a “broader package” of healthy family behaviors benefiting adolescent children. The data for this study clearly indicate that adolescent children are most likely to enjoy the benefits associated with family meals if they are living with both biological parents, one of whom is a mother devoted to homemaking, not to outside employment.

Lamentably, high rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, and maternal employment can only multiply the number of adolescents who catch their meals alone or with peers at burger joints. No one should be surprised if these McDonald’s-meals teens show up in psychiatric units, drug-rehabilitation programs, and juvenile-delinquency courts.

(Kelly Musick and Ann Meier, “Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74.3 [2012]: 476-93.)