(CN) – Children who regularly eat meals with their family feel better both mentally and physically, scientists report Thursday.
Over the course of a decade, the team examined a group of children born in the Canadian province of Quebec between 1997 and 1998 who were involved in the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development.
The findings, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, reinforce the results of previous studies that connected family meals to improved health in children.
“There is a handful of research suggesting positive links between eating family meals together frequently and child and adolescent health,” said co-author Linda Pagani, a psychoeducation professor at the University of Montreal.
“In the past, researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier to begin with. And measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience.”
The team started tracking the children when they were five months old. By age six, their parents began reporting on whether the family consumed meals together. At age 10, parents, teachers and the children themselves reported on the children’s psychosocial well-being and
“We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the same year,” Pagani said, “and we followed-up regularly as they grew up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age 6 and child well-being at age 10.”
A positive family meal environment at age six was associated with lower soft-drink consumption and higher general fitness at age 10. These children also appeared to have better social skills, according to the study.
“Because we had a lot of information about the children before age six – 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 first author Marie-Josee Harbec, a doctoral student at the University of Montreal.
“It was really ideal as a situation.”
Family meals likely provide young children with an emotionally safe setting to discuss social issues and day-to-day concerns, which may transfer to the adolescents’ interactions with others, according to Pagani.
“Experiencing positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better communication skills with people outside of the family unit,” Pagani said.
As families in Western nations consume fewer meals together, the findings highlight the potential benefit of promoting family meals as a way to optimize child development.
“Our findings suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality, but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children’s well-being,” Pagani said.