It is perhaps an antiquated concept in the sensory overload of our daily lives, but the family meal might still serve an important purpose that warrants its integration back into our schedules. Recent research from Tufts University suggests that family dinners might protect against eating disorders among girls, as well as depression.
These benefits may not be widely experienced, however, because less than 60% of children eat five or more meals with their parents per week. If implemented on a regular basis, family meals could protect against severe mental disorders that commonly afflict girls.
What is it about these family-based meals that could alter mental health? The researchers posit that communication may be one of the central factors, although the study only considered the frequency of family meals in their analysis. However, having an open dialogue might greatly contribute to greater awareness of problems facing children and parents might be able to notice changes in children's attitude or behavior more readily.
The gender differences in this study are very interesting, with the results showing a protective influence among girls but not boys. One possible explanation is that males and females respond to family dynamics in a different manner and are also affected differently by the family unit. The family environment, especially a stable one, may hold a stronger pull over females than males, influencing behavior and emotions. However, the explanation is not yet clear and more research will be needed to elucidate the differences.
Regardless of the mechanism for creating this change, the results alone of the connection between family meals and a lowered risk of eating disorders and depression in girls is compelling. We still know so little about how to prevent serious mental illnesses like these, especially among youth, that any additional information gives us one more piece to the puzzle.