Adolescents whose families have dinner together are more likely to make healthy food choices, even when children and parents have trouble communicating and connecting emotionally, according to a new study.
More frequent family dinners were associated with healthier eating among adolescents and young adults, even when families were not particularly close and had difficulty managing daily routines, the researchers report at the JAMA Network Open.
"What's important is that in addition to family functioning, family meals are still important when thinking about eating foods for teenagers," said lead author Kathryn Walton, a PhD student at the University of Guelph, Canada. she did the research.
"Many, many studies have looked at the benefits of family meals, and have found that this leads to teenagers eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary drinks," said Walton, now a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
But she said, "critics have suggested that family dysfunction can disrupt the benefits of family meals because it may be more difficult for low-performing families to organize and prepare meals or have healthy foods available at home …"
Walton and his colleagues analyzed data on adolescent and young adult men and women who participated in the large and long-term Nurse's Health Study. Walton's team included data from 2,728 14- to 24-year-olds who lived with their parents in 2011.
The functioning of the family was measured through a series of nine statements that should be classified on a 4-point scale, including: Individuals are accepted by who they are; I feel I can talk about my problems or share a problem; I feel like I'm heard in my family.
The researchers found that the more teenagers and teens dined with their parents, the more diets generally included more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary drinks.
The differences in healthy food intake were small, but statistically significant.
The important remaining question, Walton said, is how to get more families sharing meals. She offered some advice to help make that happen. First, families who do not eat together can start small with only one meal a week. "Then they can build that success."
In addition, it may be easier to organize if parents do not put a lot of pressure on themselves to make dinner a "big event," Walton said. "It might be easier if you get a salad bag and use frozen vegetables, which are as healthy as the fresh ones."
Another strategy: assign meal preparation tasks to teens. "This is especially important in families who are very busy," Walton said. "Many hands make light work. There is also the added benefit of learning important food preparation skills."
"It's really exciting to hear more evidence that eating together, along with lowering risk behaviors and improving mental health problems such as depression, can also benefit overall health," said Mara Minguez of NewYork-Presbyterian / Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. York City, which was not involved in the study.
The only caveat, Minguez said, is that the study was done in a predominantly white and highly educated population. "I work in New York where there are many different cultures and I wonder if the findings can be generalized."
Many of the poorest families may find it difficult to manage sit-down dinners because parents usually work late, Minguez said. This is where the commitment comes in. "A family can eat later, maybe until 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 was not involved in the study.
It would be good to see similar research in a more diverse population, Brady said, but for now, researchers have shown "that family functionality is not that important."