New meta-analysis and review study confirms the value of family meals

Maybe it’s a bit ironic in the current circumstances, but a new meta-analysis published in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB) builds on years of previous research studies and demonstrates the value of family meals. The news is shared by an organization that promotes families eating together, but the study is published in a peer reviewed study and is in line with previous research.

From the press release:

This study showed that more frequent family meals were associated with better dietary outcomes and family functioning outcomes. While Americans celebrate the month of March as National Nutrition Month, these findings underscore the myriad benefits advanced by family meals advocates over the past few years and punctuate the official launch of the Family Meals Movement.

“This study employed a comprehensive approach to explore the direction and magnitude of the relationship between exposure to family meals and dietary and family functioning outcomes in children,” said lead study author, Shannon M. Robson, PhD, MPH, RD, an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition and a Principal Investigator of the Energy Balance and Nutrition Laboratory at the University of Delaware. “A systematic review as well as a meta-analysis, when statistically appropriate, of all relevant studies published in a peer reviewed journal in English prior to December 2018 was conducted.” A link to the study can be found here: https://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(19)31154-6/fulltext

There are two notable findings to this study:

    • 1. Family meals improve fruit and vegetable consumption – overwhelmingly, studies showed a positive relationship between family meal frequency and fruit and vegetable intake when examined separately, but also when fruit and vegetable intake were combined.

2. Family meals improve family functioning – nearly all the studies included in the systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated a positive relationship between family meal frequency and measures of family functioning. Family functioning is defined as family connectedness, communication, expressiveness, and problem-solving.

“There are thousands of individual studies that examine the impact of family meals on nutrition and family behavior, but this new meta-analyses looks at the relationship between family meal frequency and family functioning outcomes,” said David Fikes, executive director of the FMI Foundation, the organization that provided a research grant for this study. “It is particularly fitting that as we celebrate National Nutrition Month, we can confirm that family meals are a valuable contributor of improved nutrition and family functioning. This compelling evidence energizes us to expand our National Family Meals Month efforts to a year-long Family Meals Movement.”

For the past five years, the FMI Foundation has driven National Family Meals Month™ which has been observed each September. The campaign has encouraged Americans to strive for just one more family meal per week at home and energized more than 600 partners – food retailers, suppliers, collaborators, media and celebrities – to support the campaign. A Harris Poll national tracking study impressively substantiates that mealtime behaviors are changing because of this initiative with 36% of Americans who saw the campaign cooking more meals at home and eating together more often as a family.

Abstract of the meta-analysis and review study:

Objective
To examine the direction and magnitude of the relation between family meal frequency and dietary and family functioning outcomes in children (aged 2–18 years).

Design
Systematic literature review with meta-analysis.

Methods
Independent electronic searches, 1 for each outcome of interest, were conducted across 5 databases: PubMed, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature, Web of Science, Scopus, and PsycINFO. Studies were included if they were peer-reviewed and published in English in the US through December 2018.

Main Outcome Measures
Diet and family functioning.

Results
Dietary outcomes showed some evidence of a positive association between family meal frequency and fruits, vegetables, fruits and vegetables, sugar-sweetened beverages, and the Healthy Eating Index. There was less clear evidence of this relation in snacks, fast food, and desserts. A positive association was found between family meal frequency or dinner family meal frequency and family functioning outcomes. All studies included had cross-sectional and longitudinal study designs.

Conclusions and Implications
There is some evidence to show a positive relation between family meal frequency and dietary outcomes. There is stronger evidence for the relation with family functioning outcomes. Most articles included in the systematic reviews were excluded from meta-analysis owing to inadequate data and high methodological diversity across exposure and outcome variables.

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