The 2010 U.S. Census found that more than half of husband-wife family households in America did not include children under the age of 19. A recent study conducted by researchers from the Ohio State University has revealed that even couples who do not live with a child still eat most of their meals at home rather than out of the house. Implications from this study could be important for childhood development, considering past research has indicated the children who eat family meals are less likely to suffer from eating disorders, substance use, and symptoms of depression.

"There are a lot of families that don't have children. And we've forgotten about them in this context of thinking about sharing food and time together and what that means," Rachel Tumin, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the Ohio State University and lead author of the study said in a statement. "If all adults eat frequent family meals, then it's worth thinking of them as a holistic group versus maintaining a more narrow focus on just those adults who have minor children living with them. If the answer had been that adults with no kids at home never eat family meals, then there would be no point in subsequent research to find out if it's good for them. But with these data, we can bring this whole other group along with us in our thinking as we shift to exploring in what ways family meals are beneficial to overall public health."

Tumin and her colleagues compared family-eating patterns among 14,057 adults living with at least one family member who participated in the 2012 Ohio Medicaid Assessment Survey. Survey respondents included 5,766 adults living with at least one child under the age of 19 and 8,291 adults with no children in their household. The research team claimed that their findings would be comparable to national statistics, since Ohio demographics are similar to all of the United States. To assess the frequency of family-eating, participants were asked, "During the past week, on how many days did you and your family eat at least one meal together at your home or residence?"

The frequency of family meals for adults living with no children was remarkably similar to that of adults living with at least one child in their household. Although between five and seven percent of adults in Ohio said they ate no meals at home, around half of all adults eat with their families around six to seven days out of the week. Older adults who did not live with children were more likely to eat their meals at home compared to younger adults, while families with children ate at home more often than not, regardless of their age. African-American families, unmarried adults, and employed adults were less likely to eat meals with their family compared to white families, Hispanic families, married people, and unemployed people.

"Most people value family meals and engage in this behavior. The prevalence of never eating family meals or eating together only once a week is low," Anderson said. "We thought the distribution would be different, and we hypothesized that adults with children would be much more likely to eat together as a family. The data showed otherwise. If further research finds associations between higher frequency of family meals and improved health outcomes for adults, that will have implications for public health messages."

Nutrition experts recommend eating at home to help avoid unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and ultimately obesity. Restaurants often serve two to three times more than the health portion size recommended by U.S. Dietary Guidelines. In the quest to make the tastiest dish that keeps customers coming back, a healthy serving of calories, fat, and carbohydrates tends to fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, many Americans admit that they would rather avoid spending 20 minutes on preparing a home cooked meal.

"Whatever underlying factors are associated with marital status, race and ethnicity, and employment seem to have the same effect on eating family meals regardless of whether or not you have kids in the household," Tumin said. "It's challenging to tease apart and understand what it means to have a family meal and why it's beneficial and how it plays into all other family activities. Claiming that family meals are the be-all and end-all and that everyone should eat them all the time may be too simplistic a message. We don't have enough information yet to tailor that message with data that back it up."

Source: Anderson S, Tumin R. The epidemiology of family meals among Ohio’s adults. Public Health Nutrition. 2014.