A large Canadian study of youth aged 11-15 confirms that family meals are positively associated with good mental health. Dr. Frank Elgar, of McGill University, and his colleagues analyzed data from over 26,000 students in grades 6–10 from every province and territory in Canada except New Brunswick and PEI.
The researchers found that 61% of the youth had five or more family dinners per week. For each additional family meal there was a significant positive effect on mental health. These benefits still held, regardless of age and affluence.
Most people assume that the mental health benefits of family meals are due to improved communication or connectedness between parent and child. While this study showed that good communication is correlated with measures of mental health, it is interesting to note that the relationship between family meals and good mental health still holds even after controlling for differences in communication.
The students completed surveys that looked at measures of internal problems (such as anxious thoughts and loneliness), external problems (such as fighting, stealing), emotional well-being (such as self-confidence and energy), pro-social behaviour (such as helping others) and satisfaction with life. These data were correlated with answers to questions about how many times a week the youth sit down at the table with their family for dinner or supper. The youth were also asked several questions that correlate with family affluence, such as whether the family travels away for vacation.
Elgar FJ, Craig W, Trites SJ. Family Dinners, Communication, and Mental Health in Canadian Adolescents. J of Adol Health,52:433-438. 2013.