The Healthy Family Meal with Married – but Not Wealthy – Parents

Public-health officials well understand that young children and adolescents are much more likely to eat healthy, well-balanced meals if they eat them with their family than if they eat them on their own or with peers. But how does family structure affect the likelihood that young people will in fact eat meals with their family? After carefully investigating this question, a team of epidemiologists at Ohio State University recently concluded that, compared to peers living in single-parent homes, children and adolescents living with married parents enjoy a distinct advantage in eating family meals. But these researchers also uncovered evidence that twenty-first-century America’s two-career formula for amping up household income may be jeopardizing children’s health by reducing the number of family meals.  

The authors of this study begin their work cognizant that “family meals are increasingly promoted as a strategy for improving public health and preventing obesity.” After all, previous research has shown that “frequency of family meals in adolescence was positively correlated with eating with others in young adulthood which in turn was linked to greater reported intake of nutrient dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, particularly for females.” Early studies have also concluded that compared to peers who do not eat family meals, adolescents who eat with their families face a “reduced risk for overweight and obesity in young adulthood.” The benefits of family meals established by earlier research even extend to parents: one recent study cited by the authors of this new inquiry finds “a positive association between family meal frequency and consumption of fruits and vegetables for mothers and fathers.”

Intent on determining the sociodemographic characteristics that correlate with the frequency with which families eat together, the Ohio State scholars analyze survey data collected between 2007 and 2010 for 18,031 individuals living in multi-person households.  

These data establish, unsurprisingly, that “family meal frequency was positively associated with a healthier pattern of household food availability.” That is, when researchers compared households where families ate meals together frequently with households where they ate meals together rarely, the researchers found “greater household availability of fruits and dark green vegetables and less availability of salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages” in the frequent-family-meal homes.  

Perhaps also predictable was the finding that “households that included partners who were married or living together had more frequent family meals than households headed by respondents who were divorced, separated, widowed, or never married.” (As in other studies in which political correctness prompts researchers to lump cohabiting partners with married couples, this study almost certainly understates the benefits of wedlock.)  

More surprising—even provocative—are the findings indicating that “family meals were more prevalent in low-income households and those in which the reference person . . . had less than high school education.” The Ohio State researchers do not tease out the social implications of this explosive finding. Nor do they explore the cultural implications of their similarly stunning finding that “households headed by someone born outside the U.S. were substantially more likely to report frequent family meals” than were households headed by someone born in America. It is likely, however, that the researchers have unwittingly stumbled across one of the negative outcomes of the standard American formula for maximizing household income by sending a well-educated Mom out of the home to work. 

Given that the researchers are completely aware of the benefits of family meals and completely unable to resist the pressures of political correctness, perhaps it is inevitable that they would conclude their study expressing the hope that “nutrition and health professionals . . . [will] support all households, regardless of their configuration, in efforts to eat more meals together as a family.” Outside of utopian fantasies, family configuration will forever determine the likelihood of family meals. And though it is not a configuration designed to maximize household income, the married-couple-with-homemaking-wife configuration will put meals on the family table much more regularly than will any other configuration.

(Sarah L. Newman et al., “Family Meal Frequency and Association with Household Food Availability in United States Multi-Person Households: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2007-2010,” PLOS ONE 10.12 [2015]: e0144330. Web.)