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Dr. Frank Elgar, McGill University – Psychological Health and Family Meals

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Frank Elgar of McGill University explores the psychological benefits of making time for family meals.

Frank Elgar is an associate professor of psychiatry and Canada Research Chair in Social Inequalities in Child Health at McGill University. His research explores social and behavioral determinants of child mental health and well-being. He holds a PhD in psychology from Dalhousie University.

About Dr. Elgar

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Dr. Frank Elgar – Psychological Health and Family Meals

Consider this question: In a typical week, how many times does your family sit down at the table together for dinner?

We posed this question to 26 thousand young people from across Canada and measured positive and negative aspects of their mental health. Our findings confirmed what common sense might tell you about the benefits of families’ spending more time together. That is, 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.

Based on other work in this area, we expected to find that youths who rarely have dinners with their family are at risk of emotional or behavioural problems.  But we were surprised to find that family dinners related to every outcome we looked at – including positive dimensions like emotional well-being and prosocial behaviours.  As well, there didn’t appear to be a ‘magic number’ of dinners - a threshold above which the effects begin to level off. From having no dinners together to eating together 7 nights per week, each additional dinner related to significantly better mental health.  More was better - regardless of the adolescent’s gender, age or level of affluence.

Of course, these effects could run in the other direction. Young people who have mental health problems might be reluctant to come to the dinner table. Our research also found that these benefits of family dinners are partially explained by open, easy communication between youths and parents. This makes sense. Family dinners are an important time of the day for young people to talk about problems and concerns and to feel listened to.  And small differences matter - even in something as mundane and ordinary as the family meal.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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