Eating family meals during the teen years builds habits that carry forward for many years to come, according to research from the 15-year study, Project Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults (Project EAT). Project EAT has been following a group of people since their teen years.
When the group reached their early twenties, Project EAT researchers checked in with them and found they were continuing to eat family meals, only by then, their peer group played the role of family.1 Just recently, the researchers checked in with the group again and specifically looked at those who had become parents themselves, who were now an average of 31 years old.2 Were they still eating family meals? Previous research suggests this would be the case, but this is the first time a group has been followed this closely and asked the questions in real time instead of asking people to remember what they had done as teens.
The group of 727parents was asked about four food and mealtime practices:
- how frequently they ate family meals
- foods available at home
- meals eaten in front of television
- whether they were expected to be home for dinner
The researchers were curious about whether there were differences between males and females, and whether it made a difference if one or both of these young parents had family meals when they were teens.
Frequency of family meals among the new young parents was higher (6.8 family meals/week) than they reported when they were teens (4.1 family meals/week). The research also showed that the new young parents had more healthy food available at home, fewer meals eaten in front of television and higher expectations about being home for dinner than they reported as teenagers.
Researchers examined the change for each person in the study and found that there were positive associations between each practice in the teen years and the same practice as a young parent among the females, except for family meal frequency, for which no association was found. Among males, those who had healthier food available at home when they were teens also had healthier foods available in the home as young parents.
Current family meal frequency was higher when at least one parent reported frequent family meals as a teen; there was no additional benefit when both parents reported frequent family meals when they were teens.
The increase in frequency of family meals is encouraging. While no association was found between the practice in adolescence and the current practice, the increase could possibly be due to the effect of having young children, as it has frequently been observed that family meals are more frequent in households with young children. If Project EAT continues to observe this group, we may learn more about this as their children become teens.
- Larson NI, Newmark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M. Family meals during adolescence are associated with higher diet quality and healthful meal patterns during young adulthood. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107:1502-1510.
- Watts A, Berge JM, Loth K, Larson N, Neumark-Sztainer D. the Transmission of Family Food and Mealtime Practices from Adolescence to Adulthood: Lessons From Project Eat-IV. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2018;50:141-147.