Eating meals with the family, including Christmas dinner, is beneficial to teenagers’ diet and puts them on the path towards healthy eating later in life. This is according to research from the US which used data from a 2011 survey of teens and young adults aged 14 to 24. They were quizzed on how often they ate dinner with their family, how much fruit and vegetables they ate, how often they ate junk food and takeaways, and how often they drank sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
Previous research has linked family dinners to better diets, but researchers say that well-functioning families are generally more likely to share a family meal and that this could be an important factor..
This time however, the researchers tried to assess measures of family functioning, including communication, emotional connection, and problem solving, to see if it played a part. As expected, those who shared more family dinners were more likely to have better diets. They also found that this was regardless of whether or not they had a well-functioning family. This shows that family dinners are indeed a good way of improving young people’s diet.
The study came from University of Guelph in Canada, Amherst College, Harvard Medical School and Brown University in the US, and Loughborough University in the UK. It received funding from the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Network Open which is available to read online for free at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen
The researchers used data from a 2011 survey of the children of nurses in the US that had taken part in a previous health study. Their food intake was assessed using a food frequency questionnaire where they were asked how often they ate whole fruits (excluding juice) and vegetables, as well as fast food and takeaway food. They were also asked how often they sat down to have dinner with their family, ranging from never, to five or more times a week.
Family functioning was analysed using nine questions from a standard assessment scale. The scores ranged from 1, high functioning, to 4, dysfunctional. An overall average of 2.17 was used as a benchmark for healthy functioning. The researchers then analysed the link between these two and looked to see whether different levels of family functioning changed the effects of regular family dinners to the teenagers’ diets. They also took into account the young person’s age, father’s educational level, and family structure, whether or not they lived with two parents.
They found that both girls and boys ate more fruit and vegetables every day if they had more family dinners and boys (though not girls) drank fewer sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Both ate less fast food with a greater effect being on boys and less takeaways.
“Not only do families with lower levels of family functioning participate in frequent family meals,” the researchers said, “but that family dinners are associated with improved dietary intake, regardless of the level of family functioning.”