Even when families have issues, eating together can improve teen diets

More frequent family dinners were associated with more healthful eating among teens and young adults.

Teens whose families eat dinner together are more likely to make healthy food choices, even when kids and parents have issues with communicating and connecting emotionally, a new study finds.

More frequent family dinners were associated with more healthful eating among teens and young adults, even when families were not especially close and had trouble managing daily routines, researchers report in JAMA Network Open.

“The big thing is that over and beyond family functioning, family meals still matter when you’re thinking about dietary intake for adolescents,” said the study’s lead author Kathryn Walton, who was a doctoral student at the University of Guelph, Canada, when she did the research.

“Many, many studies have looked at the benefit of family meals, and over and over they have found that this leads to adolescents eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Walton, now a research fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

But, she said, “Critics have suggested that family dysfunction may interrupt the benefits of family meals because it may be harder for low-functioning families to organize and prepare meals or to have healthy foods available in the home….”

Walton and her colleagues analyzed data on teen and young adult children of men and women who participated in the large, long-term Nurse’s Health Study. Walton’s team included data on 2,728 young people aged 14 to 24 who were living with their parents in 2011.

Family functioning was measured through a series of nine statements that were to be rated on a 4-point scale, including: Individuals are accepted for who they are; I feel like I can talk about my problems or share a problem; I feel like I am heard in my family.

The researchers found that the more often teens and young adults had dinner with their parents, the more their overall diets included more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary beverages.

The differences in healthy food intake were small but statistically meaningful.

The important remaining question, Walton said, is how to get more families sharing meals. She offered some advice to help make this happen. First, families who aren’t eating together can start small, with just one meal a week. “Then they can build on that success.”

Also, it can be easier to arrange if parents don’t put too much pressure on themselves to make dinner “a big affair,” Walton said. “It can be easier if you just grab a bag of salad and use frozen vegetables, which are just as healthy as fresh ones.”

Another strategy: assign teens meal prep tasks. “This is especially important in families that are very busy,” Walton said. “Many hands make light work. Also there is the added benefit of learning important food preparation skills.”

“It’s really exciting to hear more evidence that eating together, along with decreasing risky behaviors and improving on mental health issues, such as depression, can also benefit overall health,” said Dr. Mara Minguez of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the study.

The only caveat, Minguez said, is that the study was done in a mostly white and highly educated population. “I work in New York City where there are a lot of different cultures and I wonder if the findings can be generalized.”

Many of the poorer families may have trouble managing sit-down dinners because the parents often work late, Minguez said. This is where compromise comes in. “A family can eat later, maybe even at 8 or 9,” Minguez said. “It’s just a matter of understanding why this is so important.”

“I love the idea of something simple for families to implement that has a substantial impact on health,” said Dr. Tammy Brady of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who wasn’t involved in the study.

It would be nice to see similar research in a more diverse population, Brady said, but for now, the researchers have shown “that the family functionality piece isn’t that important.”

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