Summertime often means more family time, and that’s good news. Research consistently shows a strong association between spending time as a family and adolescent well-being. In particular, frequent family meals have been linked to a host of positive teen outcomes, including physical and psychological health, school performance, and reduced risk of substance abuse and delinquency.
The latest study on family meals, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, suggests the link is quite strong. Using a large, nationally representative survey that tracked nearly 18,000 adolescents over seven years, the study finds that family meals are associated with reduced depressive symptoms, lower risk of substance use, and fewer delinquent acts.
Family structure, family size, mother’s employment status, family relationship quality and conflict, family activities, and parental control—factors that are linked to both family meals and the three teen outcomes—partially account for the associations. Nonetheless, additional analysis suggests that increasing the frequency of family meals may directly lead to a reduction in teens’ depressive symptoms. That is, family meals appear to provide a unique opportunity for parents and their teens to connect in ways that promote the latter’s psychological well-being. It is also important to note that family meals are closely related other aspects of the family environment; they do not occur in a vacuum.
The study also builds on the evidence that family forms matter. Intact families tend to eat together more frequently, and, on average, teens in those families exhibit fewer depressive symptoms, have lower risk of substance use, and commit fewer delinquent acts.
Research shows that the intact family correlates with quality family time and other positive family functioning and dynamics in ways that can bolster outcomes for children and teens. Thus, strengthening the traditional family should be a key component in policies and programs seeking to promote children’s well-being.