It’s lovely, isn’t it? Gathering around the table at Christmas time and enjoying the company of our loved ones. But family dining shouldn’t be limited to the festive season; a new study suggests that eating with family on a regular basis could benefit children’s health and well-being.

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Regular family mealtimes may benefit children’s physical and mental health.

Researchers have found that children who often ate meals with their family at the age of 6 years old had better social skills and general fitness by the age of 10, compared with those who rarely spent mealtimes with their family.

Study co-author Linda Pagani, of the Université de Montréal in Canada, and colleagues recently reported their new findings in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

This is not the first study to suggest that frequent family meals offer health benefits. One study published in 2011, for example, found that children who ate at least three meals with their family per week were less likely to be overweight than those who had fewer than three family meals weekly.

But according to Pagani, such studies have some shortfalls. “In the past,” she says, “researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier to begin with.”

“And,” she adds, “measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience.”

With these limitations in mind, Pagani and her colleagues set out to conduct a longitudinal analysis of how regular family meals affect children’s mental and physical health.

The researchers included data on 1,492 children who were a part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. All children were born between 1997 and 1998, and they had been followed as part of the study from the age of 5 months.

When the children reached 6 years of age, their parents reported how often they had family meals. The general fitness and mental well-being of each child were also assessed when they reached 10 years old.

Study co-author Marie-Josée Harbec, also of the Université de Montréal, says, “Because we had a lot of information about the children before age 6 — such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother’s education and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and functioning — we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results. It was really ideal as a situation.”

Compared with children who rarely had family meals at the age of 6 years old, those who had regular family meals had better general fitness, a lower intake of soft drinks, and better social skills at the age of 10.

Pagani speculates that the presence of a child’s parents at the dinner table provides them with an opportunity for social interaction and the chance to discuss everyday social issues or concerns.

“Experiencing positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better communication skills with people outside of the family unit,” she notes.

From a population-health perspective, our findings suggest that family meals have long-term influences on children’s biopsychosocial well-being.”

Linda Pagani

In today’s society, eating meals in front of the TV rather than around the dining table with loved ones has become the norm. But this latest research suggests that it might be time to revert to traditional family mealtimes.

“At a time when family meal frequency is on a natural decline in the population,” the study authors conclude, “this environmental characteristic can become a target of home-based interventions and could be featured in information campaigns that aim to optimize child development.”