Do family meals improve student performance? New study says maybe not so much.

We have taken it as an article of faith that the family that sits down to dinner together has kids who perform better in school. That is in large part due to studies in years past that have suggested this to be the case, along with a lot of popular wisdom and axiom. The problem with this assumption is that there are so many other factors that play into the equation. For example, the family that sits down to dinner together – especially the family that makes a point to sit down together – is making a commitment to the child’s education in a specific way. And it likely isn’t the only way. Do we factor other things like time spent doing homework into the results? Scientifically speaking, doing so pollutes the central hypothesis that breaking bread together automatically fosters better education.

That this one facet of the family life works for a set of families does not mean that another family who, for one reason or another, cannot sit down to meals together is any less committed to their child’s upbringing or education. So if we control for outside factors as much as possible, do co-diners have an edge? One study says no:

Despite popular wisdom and findings from much previous research that suggests the beneficial impact of family mealtime, a rigorous analysis of 21,400 children, ages five to 15, brings a new argument to the table: When researchers controlled for a host of confounding factors, they didn’t find any relationship between family meals and child academic outcomes or behavior.

The study does not specifically state that you shouldn’t eat with your children, just that the seeming causality between family meals and academic achievement is probably due to a number of other factors. Family bonding is important for many reasons, as DFE readers on social networks have pointed out. The ability to spot learning problems early is one such reason. But what this study tells us is that you probably don’t need to run to the therapist for an emergency session every time you scarf some Burger King in the car on the way to the kid’s soccer game.

Emergency session at the Y? Probably. But not the therapist.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

3 replies on “Do family meals improve student performance? New study says maybe not so much.”

I wonder if the advantage (if there is one) is not the literal act of sharing a meal, but rather being in a stable/loving/consistent family environment that is perhaps more likely to share meals?

Yeah, that's what the article itself says. And I completely agree: spending time with the li'l 'uns is critically important.

But there is a tendency in our culture to stick to truisms rather than consider the more nuanced meaning. Spending time together does not necessarily mean meals, however effective those might be. In the end, we make people feel guilty for not living up to what turns out to be an axiom rather than a fact.

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