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The Secret to Raising Healthy Kids

Hint: It's one of the oldest family traditions in the book.

If you watch virtually any American sitcom from 1950 to 1995, many of the liveliest conversations happen when the family is forced to be together as they sit at the dinner table. Far from being just a television trope, having dinner as a family really was once a cornerstone of American society. But now those days are diminishing.

According to a 2016 survey of U.S. parents, conducted by Toluna, a survey company based in Dallas, Texas, 47 percent of parents say that they share fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up, and another 43 percent of parents say that they have fewer family meals now than they did five years ago. Part of the reason for that is no doubt the fact that the divorce rate is much higher than it was in the Leave it to Beaver days, and another is probably the fact that people are busier nowadays. But even of those who do find time to break bread together every night, 57 percent said that the "quality time" is disrupted by the presence of technology, the statistics higher among Millennials than non-Millennials.

While some mommy bloggers believe that the death of the family dinner is no big deal, a recent University of Montreal study would beg to differ. The study, published on Thursday in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, surveyed a group of children born in Quebec between 1997 and 1998, and determined that children who routinely eat dinner with their family grow up to more physically healthy and mentally balanced adults.

While similar studies, with similar findings, have been conducted in the past, pyschoeducation professor and study co-author Linda Pagani said that, "in the past, researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier to begin with. And measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience."

As such, the researchers began observing the children when they were just 5 months old as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. At 6, their parents began reporting on how often they ate dinner as a family, and, at 10, reported on their physical and emotional well-being.

"We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the same year, and we followed-up regularly as they grew up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age 6 and child well-being at age 10," Pagani said.

"Because we had a lot of information about the children before age 6—such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother's education and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and functioning—we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results," Université de Montréal doctoral student and study co-author Marie-Josée Harbec said. "It was really ideal as a situation."

Their findings indicated that the 10-year-olds who had been regularly eating dinner with their family since the age of 6 drank less soda, were more physically fit, had better social skills, and were less rebellious or aggressive.

"The presence of parents during mealtimes likely provides young children with firsthand social interaction, discussions of social issues and day-to-day concerns, and vicarious learning of prosocial interactions in a familiar and emotionally secure setting. Experiencing positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better communication skills with people outside of the family unit. Our findings suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality, but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children's well-being," Pagani said.

Their results are in keeping with our studies on the correlation between family dinners and behavior. In 2012, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse surveyed thousands of American teens and found that those who had routinely eaten dinner with their parents as a family were 1.5 times likelier to have a good relationship with their mother and father, and therefore 4 times less likely to have smoked weed, half as likely to have had alcohol, and 2.5 times less likely to have smoked cigarettes.

Of course, other studies have indicated is that, to raise a well-adjusted human being, what's important is to make sure you spent quality time with your kid, whether that's at breakfast, dinner, or just playing catch outside. If you are inspired to sit your loved ones down this holiday season, here are 5 Ways Cool Dads Can Make Family Dinner A Lot More Awesome.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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