Family dinners may not be responsible for strong families

If you’re not managing to sit down to a family dinner five nights a week, perhaps you don’t need to feel too guilty.

Eating dinner as a family has been said to head off problems such as eating disorders, obesity, and inadequate nutrition in the teenage years.

RECIPE LINK: Check out our collection of easy family dinner recipes

But a new study shows those benefits may owe more to the type of family that frequently sits down to dinner.

Researchers have recently found that the families that eat together more frequently share some common qualities statistically:

  • both biological parents present
  • stay at home mother
  • higher income
  • better family relationships.

It is these qualities that researchers believe have greater impact than the family dinner over levels of teen depressive symptoms, substance use, and delinquency – three factors typically examined in family meal studies.

“We find that most of the association between family meals and teen wellbeing is due to other aspects of the family environment. Analyses that follow children over time lend even weaker evidence for causal effects of family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being,” said Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and lead author of the study to be published in the June edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Family dinners appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities”

Family dinners not responsible for strong families

Photo by qmnonic/Flickr

The study indicates that families who don’t manage to have regular family meals can obtain the same benefits if they have a family environment that includes time together, closeness, and good communication.

“Meals may afford a regular and positive context for parents to connect with children emotionally, to monitor their social and academic activities, and to convey values and expectations. This is what we suspect is driving any causal relationship between family dinners and child well being. But, family dinners also appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities, and it’s unclear how well family dinners would work unbundled from the rest of that package,” said Musick.

How often do you sit down to eat as a family? Add your comments below.

NOTE: Some of these comments first appeared in The Kids Are All Right Forum.



  1. I should probably have qualified my “family at the table each night” ideal with a “when possible” and an admission that sometimes the table is the coffee table. 🙂 Music and dance lessons, work meetings and social activities can get in the way of all of us eating at the same time, we probably average 5 nights a week of “proper” family dinners.

    I absolutely do think communal TV watching can be good family time and often leads to interesting discussions, plus we get lots of fun from sharing our favourite stuff on DVD with the kids – we’ve been watching Yes Minister together lately.

  2. Sydney mum says:

    I think 5 nights is excellent really, if you’re achieving that. I think it also helps if the kids are roughly in the same age bracket. In my experience teenagers and toddlers are not often conducive to family dinners at the dining table. We probably manage a couple of dinners each week at the proper table with our teen, and a few on the couch. Growing up we NEVER ate dinner in front of the telly if mum and dad were home. It was all six of us, at the table, tv off, every night. Funny, I can’t even remember what we talked about.

  3. We struggle to average one per week. This is something I think you have to actively manage as parents or it will just never happen. Eating together as a family more is something I’d really like us to improve on. many benefits in terms of overall communication and connection with the kids. Good also for picking up any problems before they start to fester.

  4. divinemsr says:

    This is something i know you are suppoed to do but it is just so hard in our family – we have 3 kids and our oldest he is 16 but there is a toddler and a baby as well. So bythe time we get them to sleep it is late and we don’t want to sit down at dinner. We sometimes do, about one night a week, but the other nights we watch tv together and eat off our lap. I think this is still family time because we all have a good time watching our shows. I think we have a good relationship with our 16 year old and we all talk to each other during the show too. I wonder how many families do have dinner together every night.

  5. leastodd says:

    In a perfect world i’m sure we would all love to sit at the dinner table each night, happily chatting away about our day and laughing at each others jokes, but in this day and age most of us are far from being the ‘Sullivans’.
    With so many, single parent, blended and dual income families about, i it is believe rare that this would happen 7 or even 5 nights per week without some sort of disruption.

    Personally i am divorced and have share custody of my children 14 and 10. They are with their father different nights each week due to shift work. If on a particular week the kids are with me on the nights that either of them or myself may a regular training, dancing session etc, we may never sit down to an uninterupted meal. In saying that, on the nights that we do, we all sit and discuss whats going on in each of our little lives. Yes, the teen does sometimes need a little promting but it works in the end.

    I think what i’m trying to say is that we all need to make the most of the situation we are in. We can only do what fits best with our own family and hope we are doing the right thing.

  6. Shambolic Living says:

    We used to be really good at the family dinner when the children were younger – eating together every night. Now we seem to have slipped into the habit of eating in front of the TV and I must admit it’s not an ideal situation. The conversation, the debates, the issues raised around the dinner table are very different to our discussions in front of the TV. Perhaps I need to take the papers and washing waiting to be folded off the table and start the tradition of eating together again.

    • Sydney mum says:

      Sounds like our dining table. Add a few computers, work things and toddler craft, and it’s a very big hurdle to family dinners!

  7. Newlifeonroad says:

    We try to eat around the table each night. We only have four of our five boys living with us as our oldest is now in the Navy. I love dinner time, but sometimes we dont get to share much as we are either to late at night, and our boys are so hungry that they want to eat and off to bed, or they are not interested in talking.
    I have to say that family sharing around dinner is my favorite time of the day as its when we are all together. I love it more when our oldest son returns home for a visit which is not often enough.
    Its funny how fast they grow and move out of home – I wish I could go back in time and treasure our time more…when they were little they used to spend a lot of time with each other.
    I agree – that we are all different and what works for one family doesnt always work for another!

  8. Katherine Hynes says:

    Here’s my 2 cents worth…I think we should aim for family dinners but not beat ourselves up when they don’t happen or play-out like a joyful TV ad. To take the pressure off busy weekday nights, why not schedule in a family dinner on the weekend? or even a family lunch? (lamb roast anyone?). If your teen enjoys cooking, maybe cook together. Preparing food together in a relaxed atmosphere can be a great way to ‘check-in’.

  9. Marybelle says:

    Everyone seems to be on different time schedules around here. So, sit down family dinners are rare. Special occasions like birthdays, we ALL make an effort.

  10. We always have dinner around the table at night when everyone is home. Makes for a nicer meal and gives us a good time to discuss the day’s event.

  11. Miss.Cinders says:

    We do dinner together every night. Always have. Although dinner “together” does have Husband and I on the couch because we don’t have a big enough table! But we are still in the same room [open plan].

    The kids have always eaten together even when there were toddlers involved. Babies obviously a different story…. their schedule is “feed me now”, although I’ve done my share of feeding while I’m eating dinner!

    Sometimes Husband will ask I cover his up, but that’s an odd night here and there.

    Birthday we always make an effort to be together. I traveled 20 hours for my oldest kids 9th Birthday after my Grandfathers funeral. I was stuck in hospital very pregnant 400kms away from home, and Husband brought my oldest daughter to me so we would all be together for her 6th birthday…. in the hospital! Some things are just really important

    • Sydney mum says:

      That’s amazing – I just can’t eat dinner at 5.30pm. I am looking forward to when they are a few years older and aren’t so ratty at the end of the day, and we can eat a bit earlier, and share some meals together. I just have to give up on the notion that dinner is a time to relax and share my day with my husband 🙂

      • Miss.Cinders says:

        *giggles* Not saying it was always calm, but because we’d always done it they didn’t know anything else.

  12. sitting and eating together is worth working for, breakfast luch or dinner.. Making food together is even better
    tv off, i try to incourage the idea that it is good to do one thing at a time and to make a good job of it.
    meals dont have to take a long time, or be indoors or cooked at home but eating together IS special.

  13. Hubby is usually home late from work- around 8pm, and I find that’s too late to feed young kids. We have 4 kids, aged 11, 5, 4 and 2. I feed the kids and sit with them EVERY night. No-one is allowed desert until everyone else has finished their main meal, and we chat around the table, but often watch TV, too. Hubby joins us on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. With him starting work between 4 and 6am, and home late each night, the kids spend the most time they can with him on the weekends, and I think it’s important that that include family meals, which I also try to make a bit more of a fuss over, like serving a roast on Sundays, WHEN I CAN!

  14. Natural Aussie Mum says:

    Wow so many different schedules! We made a shift quite a while ago to early dinners- my little one goes to bed at 7pm so we try and eat at 6pm as a family. If that doesn’t work, we’ll feed him and then Mum, Dad and the 10 year old will eat together. Note that I said ‘try’, sometimes I’ll eat early or hubby will eat late or the kids will eat together… and we are known to sometimes have dinner at 4 different times! When we’ve had a really bad week for it we try extra hard to have family meals all weekend.

    I do have a No TV rule though. I find everyone less distracted and more conscious of what and how much they are eating, and the company they are with

  15. I can see where these results are coming from . Actions speak lounder than words and it takes more than just the action of sitting together to eat to make harmony. It’s good to know there are other ways to get a good family connection and all those benefits going, especially with families so busy these days.
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