Poorer families are spending less time at the dinner table as a family, according to research from the University of Minnesota's Project EAT.
The analysis from the School of Public Health found that, overall, the frequency of family meals has remained fairly constant over the past ten years. But kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are missing out on that family dinner time.
Researchers say that's a problem, because time spent eating as a family is a proven driver of overall health, especially among teens. It's also been linked to fewer eating disorders, higher levels of psychological well-being and greater academic success.
"Efforts to promote family meals have increased over the past decade based on these findings and therefore, it's important to know whether these messages have reached and had an impact on families," said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., principal investigator for Project EAT.
Minnesota's Project EAT study compared approximately 3,000 adolescents surveyed in 1999 to a similar group of adolescents surveyed in 2010 within the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro.
In this latest analysis, researchers looked at family meal frequency within a large and diverse teen population to see if there were changes in the overall population, and if so, whether there were some groups more at risk of missing this important time as a family than others.
"Our findings suggest that overall the number of family meals remained fairly constant across adolescent populations," Neumark-Sztainer said. "But further investigation showed that disparities in family meals across socioeconomic backgrounds are widening."
For teens of higher socioeconomic backgrounds, the average number of family meals reported as eaten in the past week increased from 4.2 in 1999 to 4.5 in 2010. But teens from lower socioeconomic backgrounds went the other direction, dropping from 4.0 meals per week in 1999 to 3.6 in 2010.
The gap in the frequency of meals eaten as a family across socioeconomic groups is growing. Fewer families from the lowest socioeconomic level ate meals together five or more times per week than families from the highest socioeconomic level in 1999 and in 2010. The gap between these groups grew from 8.9 percent in 1999 to 22.5 percent in 2010, clearly showing a widening in socioeconomic differences in frequent family meal consumption.
"Family meals protect teens from various health-related problems," said Neumark-Sztainer. "We need to work hard to ensure that messages regarding the importance of family meals, and interventions aimed at facilitating family meals, reach high-risk families in these low socioeconomic groups."