For some families gathering around the table this Thursday, the shared meal may be the exception rather than the rule. On ordinary days, long work hours, school assignments, and extracurricular activities can make it hard for families to find time to eat together.
A recent study suggests that this may not bode well for children's health.
Canadian researchers found that eating alone frequently was associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) and other cardiovascular risk factors among 14- and 15-year-olds, compared with eating more often with family members. The findings were presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto last month.
The researchers looked at 14,280 ninth-graders over a period of four years. The students had their height, weight, waist circumference, cholesterol, and blood pressure measured as part of a school program. They also completed questionnaires on their eating habits, including how often they ate dinner with at least one family member.
Teens who ate with at least one family member six or seven times a week had a BMI that averaged around four percentile points lower than those of kids who ate most dinners alone. Kids who ate dinner with family sometimes — say, three or four times a week — tended to fall in between. (BMI measures weight related to height and is an indicator of overweight and obesity.) More frequent family meals were also linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, though the differences were less pronounced.
Family meals are typically more nutritious and balanced than what kids might eat on their own, which might explain why kids who eat with family more often are healthier. It may also be good for later health to establish healthy eating patterns early on, said lead author Dr. Michael Khoury, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"Cardiovascular risk factors track into adulthood," he said. "Kids who have problems are far more likely to have problems as adults."
Previous research has linked family meals to a host of other benefits. A longitudinal study of nearly 100,000 sixth- to 12th-graders found that frequent family dinners are linked with less substance abuse, disordered eating, and other risky behaviors. Harvard University and University of Tulsa researchers found that family dinners can be a potent vocabulary booster for young kids, since they expose them to a range of new words.
Of course, many of the benefits of family meals come from what goes on at the table, said Anne Fishel, director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and cofounder of the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit that promotes families eating together. Parents need to be warm and engaged, and not controlling or restrictive. The TV should be off, and mobile devices put away. Kids also need to be allowed to talk, instead of constantly reminded to focus on their food.
"If kids aren't welcomed into the conversation, or if there's criticism, you're not going to see the benefits," said Fishel, author of the book "Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids." "There's nothing magical about lasagna in itself."
If it's hard to get everyone together for dinner on a regular basis, shared breakfasts, weekend lunches, or even late-evening snacks can also work well, Fishel said. The point is to find a time to pause and reconnect.
To that end, meals need not be perfect. There's no shame in using shortcuts, Fishel says, like buying pre-made pizza dough or pre-cut vegetables. Involving kids in preparations can teach them responsibility and make them feel more invested in meals, she added, which makes them more likely to eat the final product.
Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail