We've all heard the adage, 'A family that eats together stays together'. Now a new Canadian study by Université de Montréal doctoral student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor and psychoeducation professor Linda Pagani shows that children who routinely eat their meals with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits. They followed a group of Quebec children born between 1997 and 1998.
The study looked at children who had been followed by researchers since they were 5 months old as part of a 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.
Children who enjoyed more family meals at age 6 showed higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10. These children also seemed to have more social skills 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."
At a time when fewer families have their meals together, this is a timely reminder to try and change the practice and make family meals a priority.