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Title: Eating together: a recipe for health and wellbeing?

Study completed: 2012
Researchers: Louise McLaughlin, Amy Cleator, Elaine West, Sarah Keating and Saowalak Isramongkonpan
Supervisor: Dr Suzanne Dziurawiec
Ethics approval Number: 2012/097

Extensive research has been undertaken over the past few decades to determine whether commensal dining, which is the act of eating with company, is beneficial for people (The Importance of Family Meals V, 2009). Recent studies have suggested that dining with family can have a protective effect on adolescent development (Compañ et al., 2002). More specifically, research suggests that adolescents who engage in frequent dining experiences with their parents have lower alcohol usage, as well as enhancements in self-esteem and depression (Eisenberg et al., 2004; Fulkerson et al., 2006).

Suggested reasons for these findings include that frequent family meals indicate households with greater family functioning (Ackard et al., 2006) and increased parental monitoring and familial communication (Sen, 2010). Furthermore, regular dining experiences with parents provide sufficient emotional support in day-to-day life (Fulkerson, Story et al., 2006), as well as a stable building ‘block’ for developing and sustaining positive psychological well-being (Fiese et al., 2002). However, one limitation which is evident is that research has been predominantly targeted towards children/adolescents. Consequently, the question as to whether these benefits are apparent in young adulthood remains unanswered.

As a consequence of previous research being directed towards adolescents, another limitation which is apparent is that ‘shared’ meals with household members in independent living situations have not been accounted for. Although minimal research has been conducted on this topic, some researchers speculate that a higher frequency of ‘shared’ meals may be associated with higher alcohol usage (Brunt & Rhee, 2008). One reason for this is that frequency of ‘shared’ meals represents a reduction in connectedness with familial values and an increased influence of peer/household members’ opinions, values and customs, which may be associated with higher substance usage (Ackard et al., 2006). Regarding the association between ‘shared’ meals and emotional health, no research has been conducted to determine whether ‘shared’ meals are a preventative or risk factor towards depression and self-esteem.

The purpose of the present study was to determine whether previous findings concerning the relationships between family meals and alcohol consumption, depression and self-esteem in adolescence remain intact in young adulthood. Given the vast amount of previous studies that have looked at the relationship between family meals and psychological well-being and substance usage, it was anticipated that a negative relationship would exist between frequency of family meals, depression and alcohol consumption, as well as a positive relationship would exist between family meals and self-esteem in young adulthood. Furthermore, the study explored whether frequency of commensal dining experiences with household members in independent living arrangements (i.e., ‘shared’ meals) had any effect on psychological well-being and alcohol consumption in young adults. Regarding alcohol consumption, further analysis was conducted to explore whether the association between ‘shared’ meals differed according to the type of independent living arrangement (i.e., co-habitants, in university housing, with friends/in shared accommodation, other non-specified living arrangements).

Method/Design:

To investigate these questions, a total of 200 young adults (75 whom resided with parents and 125 in independent living arrangements) completed an online survey called “Eating Together: A Recipe for Health and Well-being”. The online survey consisted of a range of 60 open-ended and closed questions which were separated into eight sections. The first and second section looked at past (i.e., during high school) and current dining experiences; the third looked at connectedness during commensal dining experiences; the fourth and fifth section examined technological usage and alcohol consumption during and outside mealtimes; the sixth section investigated the impact of day-to-day stressors (inside and outside the household environment) on mealtimes; the seventh section aimed to establish the participants’ emotional health; and the eighth section comprised of demographic questions.

All participants provided consent prior to the commencement of the survey. There was no time limit to complete the survey. Once the surveys were filled out, the data was coded, collected and analysed by the original research team using SPSS 17 for Windows. For the current research project, a subsection of the original data set was subjected to further analysis.

Main Results:

A significant relationship was found between family meals and alcohol consumption. It was found that family meals were significantly and negatively associated with alcohol consumption (during and outside mealtimes). However, no significant relationship was found between family meals and depression, or family meals and self-esteem.

Furthermore, no significant relationship was found between frequency of ‘shared’ meals and depression, self-esteem and alcohol consumption. Regarding alcohol consumption, further analysis revealed no significant relationship existed between frequency of ‘shared’ meals and alcohol consumption in any of the types of independent living arrangements.

Conclusions:

This study is the first study completed that examines family and ‘shared’ meals within a young adult population. The results indicate that there is a distinct association between family meals and alcohol consumption in young adulthood, however no significant relationship exists between family meals and psychological well-being. Furthermore, there is no distinct relationship between ‘shared’ meals and depression, self-esteem and alcohol consumption (in independent living arrangements overall and according to the subtype). The results of this study should be of use to health care providers and educators, in taking the first step towards establishing a comprehensive model of the potential risk and protective factors for behavioural and psychological well-being in young adulthood.