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Family Meals Are Linked to Positive Mental Health in Teens

Update Date: Mar 20, 2013 12:15 PM EDT

It can be hard to squeeze family dinners into the schedule, what with conflicting school and work schedules. However, multiple studies have found positive effects of family mealtime, with benefits including children's improved ability to help with food preparation and even a protective effect against obesity. New research has added yet another benefit to breaking bread with the family: positive mental health in adolescents.

The study was conducted by researchers from McGill University and Queen's University, both in Canada. The study used data from the 2010 Canadian Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Study, which allowed them to examine data from 26,069 children between the ages of 11 and 15. The study researchers controlled for age, family affluence and gender, but found that the results were similar even when those factors were not taken into account.

"We were surprised to find such consistent effects on every outcome we studied," Frank Elgar, an associate professor at McGill University's Department of Psychiatry, said in a statement. "From having no dinners together to eating together 7 nights a week, each additional dinner related to significantly better mental health."

All of the children involved in the study revealed how often they ate with their families on a weekly basis. They also discussed their level of communication between themselves and their parents, and provided data about five factors of mental health. Those dimensions included emotional well-being, helpful behavior, internalizing and externalizing problems and general life satisfaction.

The study found that, regardless of how easily adolescents felt that they could discuss subjects with their parents, family meals provided a substantial benefit. However, ease in communication between parents and their children amounted to as much as 30 percent of the benefit from family dinners. They also found that, the more weekly dinners adolescents had with their families, the better their emotional well-being, life satisfaction and pro-social behavior was. Adolescents who ate more often with their families were also less likely to externalize or internalizes problems.

"More frequent family dinners related to fewer emotional and [behavioral] problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful [behaviors] towards others and higher life satisfaction," Elgar said.

Researchers believe that there are many benefits for family meal times. The time allows parents to share positive coping and health mechanisms with their children, and allows adolescents a period in which to feel valued. The dinner also passes on positive diet choices. All of these factors contribute to positive mental health.

The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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