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 

Twenty-First-Century Barriers to Family Meals

Alarmed by soaring rates for obesity and eating disorders among the nation’s children and adolescents, public-health officials are valiantly trying to enlist parents in the fight against these problems by devising ways to get parents to gather their family around them at mealtime. Given how much more nutritious a family meal is than most fast-food fare, such initiatives are laudable. However, recent research indicates that such efforts are likely to avail little at a time of widespread family disintegration and maternal employment.

In “evidence . . . that regular family meals protect against unhealthy eating and obesity during childhood and adolescence,” researchers at Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research and the National Cancer Institute find ample reason to identify what fosters and what inhibits such meals. The evidence motivating the researchers appears in studies showing that “children and adolescents who had regular family meals were less likely to be overweight” and that “family meals can contribute to reductions in substance use, violence, sexual activity, mental health issues, and self-harm among children and adolescents.”

When the researchers assess six interventions designed to promote family meals, they focus on the four successful in increasing the frequency of such meals. These interventions include measures such as involving youth in the preparation of meals, delivering meal modules to households receiving public assistance, and involving parents in group meetings for overweight teens.  

But interventions to promote family meals are most likely to succeed when those who design them understand the social dynamics of such meals. It is consequently understandable that the researchers look not only at interventions to promote family meals but also at empirical inquiries into the circumstances in which such meals are most and least likely to occur. When the researchers carefully scrutinize 43 relevant studies published between 2000 and 2014, they identify three barriers to family meals that have grown more ubiquitous in recent decades.

First, the researchers report evidence that family meals occur less frequently when parents do not live together. The researchers do acknowledge that the studies they survey are not fully consistent in their findings on the relationship between family structure and family meals. But at a time of high divorce rates, low marriage rates, and high out-of-wedlock birth rates, anyone trying to promote family meals must be disturbed by two studies concluding that “two parents in the household was positively associated with family meals” and by another study finding that “two biological parents in the household was associated with greater family breakfast frequency.”

Second, though they must again acknowledge some inconsistency in the studies they survey, the researchers adduce evidence that the baby bust of recent decades has meant fewer family meals. Three of the studies surveyed conclude that “number of children in the household corresponded to more frequent family meals.”

Finally, the researchers report findings making the surge in maternal employment in recent decades look like another real impediment to family meals. Though the researchers must again concede a shadow of inconsistency in the studies they survey, they highlight four studies in which “mothers’ employment was negatively associated with family meal frequency.”

The researchers express the reasonable hope that their findings will help public officials trying to promote family meals. “Identifying the correlates of and barriers to family meals,” they remark, “can provide insight into the constructs and populations that should be prioritized in future interventions.”  But so long as the country’s marriage and fertility rates remain low and our divorce and maternal-employment rates remain high, those pushing for more family meals will struggle.

(Laura Dwyer et al., “Promoting Family Meals: A Review of Existing Interventions and Opportunities for Future Research,” Journal of Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics 6 [2015]: 115-31.)