Students who regularly eat meals with their families may perform better academically than their peers who don’t, according to some experts, who point to an emerging body of research.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who recently studied data for more than 4,700 11- to 18-year-olds in St. Paul, concluded that students who ate family meals more frequently than their peers tended to have better grades. In 2003, a similar study of 1,987 adolescents ages 12-17—conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, located at Columbia University—found that teenagers who ate dinner with their families five or more times a week were nearly twice as likely to receive A’s in school.
“The studies clearly indicate that students who sit down with families do better in school and get better grades and test scores,” said William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
Family meals provide children with essential bonding time that can elevate their self-esteem, build identity and confidence, increase their communication skills, and reinforce appropriate behavior, say experts, who agree that those positive effects can be found at all grade levels.
But skeptics argue that the value of mealtime togetherness is oversimplified. “To say that if kids eat meals with their families, [then] their grades will go up—I don’t believe that,” said Chick Moorman, a former 5th and 6th grade teacher from Merrill, Mich., who now speaks nationwide as a parent consultant.
In some families, mealtime can be a battlefield, Mr. Moorman said, where parents interrogate and pick on their children’s habits. Beyond that reality, he said, a strong overall family structure is more apt to ensure academic success than meals alone.
Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, agreed that frequently eating meals with the family doesn’t mean that a child will necessarily get good grades in school.
But in the same breath, he stressed it could have some positive effects. “We talk about probabilities in social science and not certainties,” he said. “It’s not so direct as saying here’s the key to academic success: Eat a lot of meals together.
“But if you eat a lot of meals together, you are setting the [family] context from which children do well in a variety of areas of their lives.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week