Developmental psychologists like their laboratories and their experimental tasks, but they also recognise that many of the complexities of children’s development only reveal themselves amid the noise of everyday life. In their search for naturalistic contexts for their observations, those who study children’s minds have often seen the value of family mealtimes. Mealtimes follow pretty set scripts; they keep energetic toddlers in the same place for a few minutes at a time; and they involve all sorts of verbal and nonverbal communication. As well as using the family dining table as a context within which to observe children directly, psychologists have also studied the effects of exposure to these particularly important social routines.
The latest Social Policy Report Brief from the Society for Research in Child Development summarises some of these findings and calls for their wider dissemination. Eating together is linked to vocabulary growth and academic achievement in younger children, and is associated with lower rates of behaviour problems. There are benefits in terms of avoiding obesity and eating disorders. Teenagers who eat with the family five or more times a week are protected against the temptations of nicotine, marijuana and alcohol. Shared meals tend to be healthier, and teenagers who enjoy them get through more fruit and vegetables.