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Parenting The family dinner: An exercise in stress or the key to a happy clan?

STEVEN HUGHES/The Globe and Mail

Over the years, it's become accepted wisdom that home-cooked family meals make for happier and healthier children. Studies suggests those casseroles and pot roasts protect kids from obesity, decrease the likelihood of drug use, depression and delinquency, and boost academic performance. Powerful cheerleaders such as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and journalist Michael Pollan extoll the virtues of gathering around the kitchen table.

The reality, however, doesn't exactly play out in scenes of domestic harmony. The task of preparing and executing family meals is often filled with guilt, exasperation and a large serving of stress.

Take Warren Orlans: The Toronto father of three (who authors the blog The Urban Daddy) prepares five different breakfasts for his family members. His wife "spends hours and hours" planning and cooking their evening meals. His seven-year-old son is a vegetarian and his nine-year-old prefers to eat only carbohydrates. When the children decide they all want to eat something different, he says, "it puts everything into a huge rush and it becomes very stressful."

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That's a common theme in kitchens across Canada. Motivated by tradition and the perceived health and social benefits of eating together, parents are running themselves ragged to make sure their families gather around the table for regular meals. Is it worth the effort?

One camp of researchers is finding evidence to show these associations aren't as strong as we might think. And in fact, when factors such as parental employment and the quality of family relationships are accounted for, they're finding shared meals lose much of their magic. Family meals, it seems, are overrated. Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper published in the current issue of the American Sociological Association magazine Contexts, found mothers of middle-class, working-class and poor families alike strive – and fail – to meet a standard reinforced in the media that idealizes healthful, home-cooked meals. Through interviews with 150 female caregivers and more than 250 hours of observing 12 families, Elliott and her colleagues learned caregivers commonly struggle with the time and money involved in cooking, as well as the burdens of trying to please picky palates.

"We never observed a meal in which at least one family member – and often more – didn't complain about something that they were served," Elliott says.

In their paper, the researchers say home-cooked meals are perceived as the hallmark of good parenting. Yet, they interviewed many mothers who spent valuable time cooking, only to receive complaints or indifference in return. Some were torn, feeling they should be cooking when they'd rather spend time with their children doing other activities.

The health and social benefits of family meals may be overstated as well. The biggest problem with studies that tout these benefits is they typically compare families that eat together with those that don't, says Jess Haines, an assistant professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph. As such, it's unknown whether any given family would be better off if everyone ate together more frequently, or whether families that eat together are fundamentally different from those that don't.

Indeed, a growing crop of research that relies on longitudinal data, comparing subjects over time, lends support to the idea that positive outcomes have less to do with the family meals themselves, and more with other factors that allow those meals to happen. When a multitude of other factors – such as television-watching, parental employment and the quality of schools – were accounted for, Boston University researcher Daniel Miller found in an analysis of 21,400 children, ages five to 15, that the effects of family meals on academic test scores and behavioural problems was small to "effectively zero."

"In our most careful statistical models, we didn't find any relationship between family meal frequency in any of those outcomes," says Miller, an assistant professor of social work.

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"I would hesitate ever to say that families shouldn't sit down and have meals together," Miller adds. "But it shouldn't be at the expense of parents or kids' sanity to make that happen."

A 2005 Harvard Medical School study found that, longitudinally, there was no association between the frequency of family meals and the likelihood of teens becoming overweight or obese. A pair of recent studies, jointly conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota, suggest family dinners aren't a magic bullet against teen drug use and delinquency either. In fact, UM sociology professor Ann Meier found that while family dinners contributed to fewer depressive symptoms and delinquency in teens when family relationships were strong, they may even have the opposite effect when family relationships were weak.

"You can imagine if you have a strained family relationship, regularly gathering together to re-enact that strain might not be the best," Meier says.

So why are we so hung up about having family meals? Meier believes part of it is nostalgia. There's also emotion attached to the act of cooking and feeding one's family – it can be seen as a labour of love.

For Orlans, meal times are the only moments when he and his family can sit down and share what happened in their day. "And you know, they're my kids. I love them and I raise them and I want to see them," he says. "I want to spend time with them now, before they don't want to spend time with us."

Jeni Marinucci, a freelance writer and single mother of two in Milton, Ont., says she recently began introducing home-cooked family dinners after several hectic months, when their busy schedules meant haphazard meals of frozen entrées.

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"I would heat them the frozen dinners and then, honest to God, I couldn't watch them eat them because it made me feel so bad," Marinucci says, explaining she and her children, ages 10 and 15, now prepare four or five meals together on Sundays that they can freeze and eat throughout the week.

"I didn't want them to grow up with no memories of gathering around the table and having a meal that was Mom's specialty," she says.

But back at North Carolina State University, Elliott believes we all need to start thinking beyond the kitchen table. In two-career households, it's unrealistic to think family meals can resemble what they did in previous generations. She and her colleagues call for creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families, such as community kitchens and healthy food trucks. Meanwhile, there's no reason to think meal times are the only place parents can bond with their children.

"We can really easily be blinded by what we see in our everyday lives and think this is how it's always been and this is how it has to be. But it isn't how it's always been," Elliott says, "and there's no reason why it has to be this way."

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