Regular family meals can greatly improve mental health among teenagers, regardless of whether they feel comfortable talking to their parents, according to new research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The research suggests that adolescents who have family meals are more trusting and generally more emotionally stable compared to those don’t.

Family meals provide teenagers a routine, consistency and good eating habits, revealed a previous survey published in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The researchers examined the relationship between the frequency of family dinners and any effects on mental health in a sample of 26,069 teens aged of 11 to 15 years. They identified a positive mental health effect among those who regularly had family dinners, regardless of their gender, age or socioeconomic level.

According to the lead author of the study, Frank Elgar, McGill Professor, Institute for Health and Social Policy:

“More frequent family dinners related to fewer emotional and behavioural problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others and higher life satisfaction.”

He added:

“We were surprised to find such consistent effects on every outcome we studied. From having no dinners together to eating together 7 nights a week, each additional dinner related to significantly better mental health.”

The teenagers reported the number of family dinners they had on a weekly basis as well as information regarding their emotional well-being, level of communication between them and their parents, life satisfaction, any internalizing and externalizing problems and helpful behaviors.

Family meals are key for open family interactions and a vital way for parents to teach positive health behaviors to their children. In addition, they provide a good means for teenagers to express any troubles they may have, as well as making them feel a sense of belonging and value, which is an important basis for good mental health.

The importance of family meals has been explored before, and it’s been shown to have many important health benefits, not only in mental health. Researchers from the University of Illinois revealed that including teenagers in family meals can help prevent eating disorders, obesity, and inadequate nutrition.

The Canadian Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, was part of a worldwide collaboration – which included a total of 43 countries – carried out by the World Health Organization.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist