Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

effects of family meals in early childhood


December 14, 2017


University of Montreal


Children who routinely eat their meals together with
their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health
benefits, a new study shows.


Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more
likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new
Canadian study shows.

Université de Montréal doctoral student Marie-Josée Harbec and her
supervisor, pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, made the finding after
following a cohort of Quebec children born between 1997 and 1998.

The study is published today in the Journal of Developmental &
Behavioral Pediatrics

“There is a handful of research suggesting positive links between
eating family meals together frequently and child and adolescent health,”
Pagani said. “In the past, researchers were unclear on whether families
that ate together were simply healthier to begin with. And measuring how often
families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not
capture the complexity of the environmental experience.”

The study looked at chilldren who had been followed by researchers since
they were 5 months old as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child
Development. At age 6, their parents started reporting on whether or not they
had family meals together. At age 10, parents, teachers and the children
themselves provided information on the children’s lifestyle habits and their
psycho-social well-being.

“We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an
early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the
same year,” Pagani said, “and we followed-up regularly as they grew
up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations
between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age 6 and
child well-being at age 10.”

When the family meal environment quality was better at age 6, higher levels
of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption were observed at
age 10. These children also seemed to have more social skills, as they were
less likely to self-report being physical aggressive, oppositional or
delinquent at age 10.

“Because we had a lot of information about the children before age 6
— such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother’s education
and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and
functioning — we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the
children or families that could throw a different light on our results,”
said Harbec. “It was really ideal as a situation.”

Added Pagani: “The presence of parents during mealtimes likely
provides young children with firsthand social interaction, discussions of
social issues and day-to-day concerns, and vicarious learning of prosocial
interactions in a familiar and emotionally secure setting. Experiencing
positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better
communication skills with people outside of the family unit. Our findings
suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality,
but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children’s

“From a population-health perspective, our findings suggest that
family meals have long-term influences on children’s physical and mental
well-being,” said Harbec.

At a time when fewer families in Western countries are having meals
together, it would be especially opportune now for psycho-social workers to
encourage the practice at home — indeed, even make it a priority, the
researchers believe. And family meals could be touted as advantageous in
public-information campaigns that aim to optimize child development.

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Journal Reference:

Harbec, Linda S. Pagani. Associations Between Early Family Meal Environment
Quality and Later Well-Being in School-Age Children
. Journal of
Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics
, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000520