When it comes to family rituals perhaps nothing has engendered more discussion recently than the family meal. First of all—is it actually a ritual? It need not be, but the more ritualized it is, the more likely it will bear productive fruit. Wolfing down big macs and fries in front of a blaring tv is neither a “ritual” meal nor would it be expected to have many positive effects (rather to the contrary, actually). A more ritualized meal is one replete with repetitive, symbolic, and affectively laden elements. It occurs in a place historically rich in family gatherings (the kitchen, the dining room). It involves prescribed modes of communication, such as appropriate topics for conversation and rules of politeness. It has an approved sequence of actions: people gather, sit, food is served, a signal to eat is pronounced (e.g. grace is said, or the server is seated). Symbolic elements are present: seating assignments reflect a familial hierarchy, an empty setting may be used as a reminder of a missing member, the food eaten and utensils used have traditional or historical meaning. The inclusion of these elements will, of course, vary—nearly all may be present at Thanksgiving, fewer during a busy work week. What seems clear, however, is that the more families engage in ritualized meals, the more positive outcomes they seem to accrue.
For example, a number of studies have found that families who eat together three or four times a week have children who perform better in school, are less likely to engage in risky behavior, and have fewer mental health problems. A recent study surveyed over 26,000 Canadian youths between 11 and 15 years of age. Researchers found that an increased frequency of family meals was positively associated with mental and physical well-being and overall life satisfaction. A survey conducted by the US National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that good health and good health behaviors were more common among adolescents who frequently ate meals with the family. A young person who had five to seven family meals weekly was four times less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana compared to one who shared two or fewer. Similarly, increased frequency of family meals predicted fewer internalizing (depression, suicidal thoughts) and externalizing (violence, criminality, running away) problems in young people. The CASA survey also had some good news about the general frequency of family meals: nearly 60 percent of 12 to 17 year olds shared five or more meals with the family weekly.
So if family meals are so good, what’s all the discussion about? The real question is that of causation. The studies showing positive outcomes are almost entirely correlation, and have often found that other variables, such as parent-child communication, mediate the meal-outcome relationship. A recent large-scale study, in fact, found that once other variables about family dynamics were removed the unique effects of family meal frequency drop to non-significance. Instead of being the cause of positive emotional and academic outcomes, the family meal was more of a “symptom” of a well-functioning family—and well-functioning families tend to produce successful kids.
This, however, does not mean that the family meal is trivial. Instead, the meal appears to be a prime venue where good family functioning expresses itself. Observational studies have found that the rituals and routines associated with a simple family meal convey important behavioral lessons to children. For example, a “civilized” family meal very likely requires children to: sit tolerantly with others at a table, take turns in speaking, use the word “please” when making requests, wait for food to be passed to them rather than reaching across the table for it, use napkins rather than shirtsleeves to wipe their faces, and numerous other mundane demands which teach critical lessons in patience, respect for others, and self-restraint. One study, for example, found an average of 14.5 politeness routines—such things as saying “please” and using napkins—present during meal times.
Meal-time rituals have also been found to be important for teaching children the social value of attendance—that is, the importance of simply being present at an activity. Parents who more often show up for their kids’ important events (school play, basketball game, etc.) are likely to have been children who were required to show up for dinner. As mom always said (probably at a meal), one of the most important things in life is just showing up. Bon appetite!
Chapter 4 of my book “Mortal Rituals”
Miller, D.P et al, (2012). Family meals and child academic and behavioral outcomes. Child Development, 83, 2104-2120
Elgar, F.J. et al (2012), Family Dinners, Communication, and Mental Health in Canadian Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52, 433-438.
Feise, B., et al, (2006). Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child well-being and family identity. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, no 111, pp. 67-89 DOI: 10.1002/cad.155