Family Mealtime -- A Tradition that Isn't Being Skipped
April 3, 2006
URBANA -- What's so special about a family sitting down to eat a meal together? As it turns out, a lot. According to researchers, there's much more going on at mealtimes than just eating. In fact, a new book suggests that everything from a higher level of literacy in young children to better nutrition in teens may be influenced by the simple practice of families sharing meals together. "There has been a lot of research in different disciplines on family mealtime over the past few years," said Reed Larson, professor of family ecology, human and community development at the University of Illinois. "This book brings it together in one place."

Larson, along with Angela Wiley and Kathryn Branscomb co-edited the collection of articles entitled Family Mealtime as a Context of Development and Socialization, published by Jossey-Bass Publications. The articles are written by leading researchers on family mealtimes from the fields of history, cultural anthropology, psycho-linguistics, psychology, and nutrition. Their studies show that much often happens in the time families spend preparing, eating and cleaning-up after a meal.

The book notes that family mealtime as a tradition is a comparatively recent innovation in the United States. In fact, it wasn't practiced by a majority of families until the postwar 1950's, when prosperity permitted the majority of the population to join the middle class.

What has happened since the 50's? "Societal changes have created new challenges to families having shared meals, including women's increased rates of employment, more parents working non-standard hours, longer commutes and children's greater participation in extracurricular activities," said Wiley.

But despite these challenges, the good news is that the family mealtime is not disappearing.

One survey cited in the book was taken in 2003 by the National Survey of Children's Health. It asked a nationally representative sample of 102,353 U.S. families how often all resident members ate together during the last week. In families with children ages 6 to 11, 80 percent reported a shared meal on four or more days; and 55 percent shared a meal on 6 or 7 days. In families with 12 to 18 year olds, 69 percent reported shared meals on 4 or more days and 42 percent shared meals on 6 or 7 days.

Rates of eating family meals did not differ greatly between ethnic groups and social classes. A biennial national survey of teens found that rates of family meals have remained stable since 1998 and may even have increased.

But, as Larson points out, knowing that families are still sharing meals during the week, doesn't tell us what actually happens at the meal. The important question is, "Are they hurried affairs, just about consuming food? Are they occasions of conflict? Or are they occasions when positive and meaningful interactions take place?"

The research is showing that while children still eat with their families much of the time, mealtime practices are moving away from the "traditional" model of dinnertime as a formal affair, involving a home cooked meal, prepared by a housewife, that reinforces proper etiquette and family hierarchy. And although mothers continue to shoulder the major responsibility for mealtimes, families opt for take-out food and eat out more often than they did 25 years ago.

Wiley said that on the one hand, the typical family meal is now more likely to involve fast food and television, elements that are not associated with nutrition and other benefits that mealtimes might provide. On the other hand, there is evidence that social interactions at mealtimes are less hierarchical and more inclusive of children in ways that potentially facilitate young people's development and family well-being.

It's what happens around the table -- the social interactions -- that is important, said Larson. "It may be a positive time for checking up on homework, sharing stories and news, and passing on cultural traditions. Of course it can also be time family members create conflict or demonstrate resistance."

Research is beginning to suggest that mealtimes provide special conditions for encouraging development in a child. This happens, in part, because children are a captive audience, at least for the few minutes it takes them to eat. But it's also an opportunity for parents to model, coach, monitor and influence children's behavior. It's a time that can give children a reference group, a comfortable reality where they feel like they belong.

The extended explanations and story-telling that occur in many families' mealtimes appear to provide a special opportunity for children's development of language, too.

Two key ideas cut across the chapters of the book. One is that it's up to the parents and older family members whether these positive opportunities are realized at family mealtimes. It doesn't just happen. "It's up to them to use the time to by helping structure a family's mealtime practices, modeling behavior, and coaching children," said Wiley.

The other common thread is that families differ a great deal in what happens at the dinner table. "For some families, meals may be a time of chronic tension, transmission of maladaptive forms of interaction, and children's development of unhealthy eating habits," Larson said. Making an effort to carve out times during the week to share family meals together is just one ingredient in the recipe for a healthy family.

Wiley stressed that more rigorous controlled studies are needed that test mediating processes and examine how diverse cultural practices may provide conditions for children's development. "But, current theory and research are consistent with the idea of family mealtimes as a context is rich in opportunities for socialization and development," she said.

Preparation of the volume was supported in part by The Pampered Chef® Family Resiliency Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and The Pampered Chef, Ltd.

Larson and Wiley will be the featured speakers at The Pampered Chef® Family Resiliency Program spring lecture on Monday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Knight Auditorium in The Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana. The lecture entitled "Vegetables, Vocabulary, and Love: Mealtimes as Opportunities for Raising Resilient Children" is free and open to the public.