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 

Missing Dad, Skipping Breakfast

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Every nutritionist understands the sizable health benefits—especially for adolescents—of eating breakfast. But a new study from Scotland indicates that these benefits are disproportionately enjoyed by adolescents living in intact two-parent families and disproportionately denied to children living in broken one-parent homes.

As they report their study on adolescents’ consumption of breakfast, researchers at the School of Medicine at the University of St. Andrews frame the issue for its proper interpretation. “Adolescence,” they write, “is a crucial time for developing and maintaining healthy eating habits, both in terms of the importance of essential nutrients during this period of growth and development, and because dietary habits formed during this life stage often track into adulthood.” Previous research has shown that eating breakfast “impact[s] positively on children’s health and well-being” and that skipping this first meal of the day fosters “poorer nutritional habits, such as increased consumption of snacks and larger meal portions throughout the day,” patterns associated with adolescents’ becoming overweight. Previous studies have also demonstrated that teens who regularly eat breakfast are more likely to have a healthy body weight and to enjoy “improved cognitive function related to memory, test grades, and school attendance.”

In setting out to investigate how family structure affects adolescents’ breakfast consumption, the researchers stress “the role of family mealtime routines,” noting earlier work highlighting the way “rituals and routines are important for the psychological health of all members of the family.” In other words, eating breakfast regularly with the family serves “not only [to] improve the diet of young people, but also [to] encourage positive relationships and communication between family members, reinforcing parental roles, a stronger family identity, connectedness and socialization.”

In other words, breakfast means more than a bowl of corn flakes or, in Scotland, a bowl of oatmeal.

To measure the effects of family structure on adolescents’ breakfast consumption, the researchers set to work analyzing data collected from Scotland’s school-aged population in a series of surveys conducted at four-year intervals between 1994 and 2010. The overall pattern in the surveys would hearten any nutritionist: “Daily breakfast consumption among adolescents increased between 1994 and 2010.” But this overall healthy pattern hides a more problematic pattern. For while “prevalence of daily breakfast consumption increased among those [adolescents] living with ‘both parents’ . . . prevalence [of daily breakfast consumption] decreased over time among adolescents in single parent families,” with a particularly notable decline among adolescents living in father-only households. The data also indicate that the likelihood of eating breakfast was also low among adolescents living in reconstituted families, typically created after divorce and a remarriage.

So during a period when Scottish adolescents in the aggregate were moving toward the healthy pattern of daily breakfast consumption, many Scottish adolescents living in single-parent and reconstituted-family homes were actually slipping into the unhealthy pattern of skipping this essential meal. As a consequence, “family structure inequalities in daily breakfast consumption increased between 1994 and 2010.”

Unfortunately, family disintegration has multiplied the number of Scottish adolescents left behind by the generally healthy overall pattern of increased breakfast consumption. In 1994, 77% of Scottish adolescents lived with both parents, while 14% lived in a single-mother family and 6% lived in a reconstituted family. But in 2010 only 67% of Scottish adolescents were living with both parents, with 19% living in a single-mother household and 11% living in a reconstituted family. Breakfast consumption is hardly the only—or most important—measure of the consequences of this shift in family life, but it does clearly indicate that this shift is not progress!

In explaining the disparity in adolescents’ breakfast habits, the researchers acknowledge that family structure might be “a proxy for socioeconomic status,” with adolescents in single-parent homes eating breakfast less often simply because their household is poorer. But the linkage between family structure and breakfast consumption persists in analyses that take into account family socioeconomic status, leading the researchers to speculate that perhaps “daily breakfast consumption is an indicator of a well-functioning ordered household” or that “the likelihood of eating breakfast daily may be due to parenting style, also known to differ by family structure.” In particular, the researchers suggest that adolescents in single-parent homes are more likely to skip breakfast in part because such adolescents have more “independence and decision power than those from two-parent families.”

The researchers plausibly reason that “a morning routine may be more easily established when there are two parents present.” But this cannot be the whole story of disparate breakfast patterns, given that “children living in reconstituted families were significantly less likely to eat breakfast daily compared with both-parent families.” The researchers conjecture that adolescents in reconstituted families may be skipping breakfast because they may be living in more than one home in a “complex arrangement with potentially many step-siblings . . . where household functions may require renegotiation,” renegotiation that may prove difficult given that “reconstituted households are more likely [than intact families] to have one or more strained parent-child relationships.”

Concerned about the health and psychological problems faced by adolescents not eating breakfast, the researchers conclude by calling attention to “school breakfast clubs and related emerging health-pro-moting activities” as possible strategies for dealing with such problems. But perhaps in Galveston as well as Glasgow, Albuquerque as well as Aberdeen, and Eugene as well as Edinburgh, it is time to end a retreat from marriage and family life that is leaving far too many teens without the sustenance—nutritional or emotional—essential for starting the day.

(Kate A. Levin, Joanna Kirby, and Candace Currie, “Family Structure and Breakfast Consumption of 11-15-Year-Old Boys and Girls in Scotland, 1994-2010: A Repeated Cross-Sectional Study,” BMC Public Health 12 [2012]: 228.)