Eating together is good for you

You waaaaaant to watch the tv

Television is more interesting than people. If it were not, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms.

Among some other pretty funny stuff, Alan Corenk said that about tv*.

But there’s a neck-straining, willpower-depleting, almost irresistible pull to watch a television if it’s on.

The flashing screen is engaging, and it tugs the brain’s orient response, which forces us to look at the new thing that’s happened, making it difficult to draw our attention away. (By the way, this constant re-orientation is partly why we can watch tv all evening, know we’ve done nothing and, yet, still feel tired.)

TV Dinner

But in my family, at least, tv was a no-go during the evening meal. Call it fusty old traditionalism, call it smart enough to keep the kids under watchful eye so they couldn’t escape before it was time to do the dishes, call it what you like. My parents insisted.

Dinner was at the table. Always.

Recent research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that my parents were, even if inadvertently, onto something.

Conventional wisdom would say that family meals bring families together, kids eat better, parents get a chance to talk with their kids and keep communication channels open, families share more, and so on.

What family meals offer,  (phones off, iPads and tablets left behind) are routine and structure, consistency and predictability, and good eating habits.

Further, there are some traditional things to learn that are acquired by sheer repetition (or nagging, you choose) such as table etiquette (elbows off, no talking with your mouth full), taking turns and cooperation.

Research would supplement these views, adding that family meals can help prevent obesity, diabetes and poor nutrition.

Certainly, in today’s times, family meals can be a useful break from electronic media. In an increasingly wired age, dragging attention from screens to faces can be difficult. Really difficult.

(This is due in part to the repeated re-orientation that our screens require of us and our brains, as we mentioned above and, also, because we just don’t know when the next SMS, update, status change and whatever else, will occur, we continually check. Just in case. For those of you who really want to know, this constant checking follows a variable interval reinforcement schedule.)

This research goes further.

Mental health

In short, the research shows that eating as a family, even if the conversation can be awkward, can significantly improve teenage mental health. It goes on to say that teenagers from families who eat together are usually more trusting and emotionally stable, by comparison with those who aren’t.

Side note: They say nothing about the mental health of parents who have meals with their teenage children even if the conversation is awkward but I guess that’s for another study…

The researchers studied 26,069 teens aged between 11 and 15, to examine the relationship between the frequency of family meals and effects on mental health.

What was particularly noteworthy was that they found a positive effect on mental health for those teens who regularly had family meals regardless of their gender, age or socioeconomic level.

Fewer problems

Lead author, Frank Elgar, McGill Professor, Institute for Health and Social Policy, said

“More frequent family dinners related to fewer emotional and behavioural problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others and higher life satisfaction.”


“We were surprised to find such consistent effects on every outcome we studied. From having no dinners together to eating together 7 nights a week, each additional dinner related to significantly better mental health.”

Abraham Maslow, in his famous Hierarchy of Needs, wrote on the importance of belonging. Family meals help facilitate this by providing opportunities for teaching and coaching, communication and sharing, with teens able to express positives and negatives while still feeling valued.

Naturally, these are important gains.

So here’s the take home bit

The authors are encouraging family dinners, even though they may be awkward, and the conversation stilted.

Push on. It might be worth it.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Variable interval reinforcement

What do you think?

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* Not to be outdone by Groucho Marx who said: 

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book!”


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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