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ISSN : 1229-4713(Print)
ISSN : 2288-1638(Online)
Korean Journal of family welfare Vol.23 No.1 pp.21-36

Mealtimes with Parents vs. Mealtime Alone: Consequences for the U.S. Adolescents’ Behavior Problems and Depression

Ui Jeong Moon, Seung-Eun Cha
Department of Child Development and Guidance, Hannam University, Daejeon 34430, Korea
Department of Child and Family Welfare, University of Suwon, Hwasung 18323, Korea
Corresponding Author: Seung Eun Cha, Department of Child and Family Welfare, University of Suwon (


The purpose of this study is to examine whether the amount of time spent having meals with parents and the amount of time having meals alone is associated with adolescents’ behavior problems and depressive symptoms. This study used data on the U.S. adolescents(aged 11-17) from the 2014–Child Development Supplement (CDS) and time diaries of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). Adolescents’ externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and depressive symptoms were regressed on hours of mealtimes with parents and mealtimes alone, controlling for adolescents’ sociodemographic characteristics. The U.S. adolescents on average spent almost 3.6 hours per week having meals with parents, and 2.4 hours having meals alone at home. Increased time spent with parents during mealtimes was associated with decreases in female adolescents’ externalizing behavior problems and depressive symptoms. Meanwhile, increased time having meals alone was associated with an increase in male adolescents’ depressive symptoms. More time spent with parents during mealtimes plays a protective role for females in the form of parental surveillance, support, and monitoring practices. Unsupervised mealtime opens up more opportunities for male adolescents to experience emotional stress.

혼밥과 부모와의 식사시간이 미국 청소년의 문제행동과 우울감에 미치는 영향*

문 의정, 차 승은


    Hannam University

    Ⅰ. Introduction and Background

    Generally, time spent with parents benefits adolescent development[22], and mealtimes are no exception[14, 36]. The frequency of family meals has been shown to relate to fewer risky behaviors such as substance use and delinquency[10, 12, 14, 23, 31], fewer depressive symptoms[13, 23, 33, 36], and more healthy dietary behaviors[13, 18, 23, 34, 37, 38]. Research on family meals suggests that adolescents’ behavioral and psychological health could be positively impacted by enhancing family functioning through shared time spent having meals with parents and adolescents together[11, 36]. Mealtimes are regular-basis opportunities that not only allow parents to communicate with their adolescents while modeling healthy eating behavior, but also give adolescents an opportunity to share their daily lives. Especially for adolescents, parent-child reciprocal interactions can occur in a relatively lighter and more relaxed atmosphere when they are a secondary or supplementary activity, because eating is the prior task during mealtimes. Indeed, empirical research has found that the benefits of family meals for adolescents are explained by the open communication that happens in this setting[11, 27]. Franko[12] found that family meals enhanced family cohesion, resulting in fewer risky behaviors. Another study found that watching TV during family mealtimes decreased family members’ degree of enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction at the meal, because watching TV was likely to interrupt opportunities for family members to connect, communicate and interact[34]. Even more, family mealtime was found to reduce the detrimental association between a disadvantaged family structure and adolescents’ risky behaviors[20].

    Even though there are multiple benefits of being together with family at mealtimes, as children grow and mature, they request more freedom and independence[9]. Parents also grant more free time to adolescents because they want their children to develop independent decision-making skills, self-reliance, and autonomy[2, 8, 19]. But when unsupervised free time is provided, adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and delinquency[1, 5]. Considering adolescents’ developmental characteristics, it is to be expected that they will spend an increasing amount of time alone having meals. However, the influence this has on their development has not been investigated.

    Studies on family mealtimes have been widely conducted in an effort to explore contextual factors affecting adolescents’ health. However, we found that except for Offer’s study[27], most of the research to date did not specify the family members’ relationships to the target adolescents during the meal. Previous studies asked respondents about the frequency with which all or most of their family ate a meal together. Previous research seems to presume that at least one of parents was present at a “family” mealtime. Another factor that many studies on family mealtimes have ignored is that there may be differences between mealtimes spent without parents but in the company of other family members or friends, versus mealtimes spent alone. If family mealtimes play a role in strengthening family functioning, which in turn contributes to adolescents’ health, mealtimes alone may mean fewer opportunities to socialize and, in turn, negative consequences for adolescent health. It is important to investigate the effects on adolescent health of mealtimes spent alone.

    To fill these gaps in the literature, we focused on adolescents’ mealtimes specifically with parents, which may tell us whether the benefits of family mealtimes were due more to parent-child interactions and/or parental monitoring. In addition, this study included time spent having meals alone, and examined whether there were differences in the associations compared to time spent having meals with parents. To do this study, we used time diary data to measure the amount of time spent having meals with parents and the amount of time spent eating alone, which is a more objective and less biased measure. We attempted to extend the existing knowledge by asking whether more time having meals with parents is related to better consequences in terms of adolescents’ behavioral and mental outcomes. By drawing parallel measures of with parent mealtimes and alone mealtimes, we were able to compare the positives and negatives of those two mealtime contexts in our analysis.

    Ⅱ. Methods

    1. Data

    This study draws upon data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), an ongoing longitudinal, nationally representative survey that has gathered detailed socioeconomic, health status/behaviors, and demographic data from individuals and their families since 1968 in the U.S. In 1997, the PSID inaugurated the first Child Development Supplement (CDS I), which was administered to the primary caregivers of children aged 0-12 and up to two of their children, who were then assessed using standardized measures. The first wave of the CDS included 3,563 children from 2,380 families, with a response rate of 88%. These same families were recontacted approximately 5 years later. In the second wave (CDS II), conducted in 2002 and 2003, 2,907 out of 3,191 eligible children and adolescents aged 5-18 completed interviews; this represented a response rate of 91%. A third wave (CDS III) was conducted in 2007-2008 when the youngest were 10 years of age. In 2014, CDS (CDS-2014) was relaunched with an entirely new sample covering all children in PSID households aged 0-17[28]. CDS-2014 collected on a total of 4,333 children from an eligible sample of 5,636 children.

    This study focuses on 1,566 children and their families for whom information from both the CDS-2014 and time diaries was available. Time diaries, which were administered each year when CDS was conducted, are 24-hour records detailing the children’s activities, the start and end times for these activities, the people who accompanied the child, and the location of the activities. After selecting children age 11-17 who were deemed middle and high school adolescents, 412 children remained in the sample for this study.

    2. Measures

    1) Outcome variables

    Adolescents’ behavior problems were measured using the Behavior Problems Index (BPI) [29](see Appendix 1.) This index measures the frequency and type of child behavior problems as reported by the primary caregiver, using 32 items. The primary caregivers were instructed to choose one of the choices – 1 for often true, 2 for sometimes true, or 3 for never true – for the target child’s behavior problems. These were recoded so that higher scores indicate more behavior problems. From factor analysis via oblique rotation, 15 items were identified as externalizing problems, with a reliability of a = .91. The scale includes children’s aggressive, disruptive, impulsive, and delinquent behaviors. Fourteen items were identified as internalizing problems, with a reliability of a = .89. The scale includes children’s withdrawn, fearful, unhappy, and worthless feelings and behaviors.

    Depression was measured using the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) Short Form[32], completed by adolescents. The CDI measures rates of the severity of symptoms related to depression in adolescents: 1 for once in a while, 2 for many times, and 3 for all the time. Example items among the total 10 items are: “I look ugly”, “Things bother me”, and “Nobody really loves me”. Higher scores indicate severe depressive symptoms with a reliability of a = .80.

    2) Mealtimes with parents and alone.

    The CDS-2014 collected time diaries on the type, duration, location, and companionship for the adolescent’s daily activities. The person(s) who accompanied the adolescent, such as father, mother, grandparent, sibling, friend, and/or non-relative adult, is identified. The total weekday time and the total weekend time during which at least one of the child’s parents participated in the mealtime with their child during non-school times were calculated in order to define “mealtime with parents”. “Mealtime alone” was defined as the amount of time adolescents had meals unaccompanied. Mealtime includes time spent eating meals as well as time spent on meal preparation, serving food, and cleaning up as a proxy measure of shared-family context[11].

    3) Demographic variables

    Individuals and family characteristics that might influence the adolescents’ outcomes were included as control variables. Individual characteristics are gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Gender was coded as 0 for male and 1 for female. Ages 11-13 and ages 14-17 were separately grouped. Adolescents’ race/ethnicity was categorized into one of four groups: White, African-American, Latino, or Asian/other. Parents’ education level was determined primarily according to the mother’s education, but the father’s education was used in the case of 12 single father families. Education level was categorized into three groups: less than high school, completed high school, and some college education or more. The number of children in the household was included. Poverty ratio was defined as the ratio of household income to the USDA (United State Department of Agriculture) needs standard for a family of that size and composition. The number of parents was identified, and two-parent families were the reference group for single parent families. Adolescents’ psychological status was also included. Academic interest was measured by averaging two items asking how interesting she/he finds working on a math (English) assignment, with choices ranging from 1 for very boring to 5 for very interesting. Higher scores indicate more academic interests. Closeness to parents was determined by asking adolescents, “How close do you feel towards your mother (father)?”, with a response of 1 for not very close and 4 for extremely close. Closeness to the mother was primarily used, and closeness to father was used when adolescents did not provide a response to the item on closeness to mother. Peer relationship problems were measured by summing 5 items asking adolescents whether other children or teens picked on him/her, whether she/he had one good friend or more, and whether s/he is usually on his/her own, with a response of 1 for not true and 3 for certainly true. After reverse coding for positive statement items, higher scores indicate more problems with peer relationships.

    3. Analysis Procedure

    We regressed adolescents’ externalizing problems, internalizing behavior problems and depressive symptoms on hours of mealtime with parents and mealtime alone, controlling for adolescents’ individual and family characteristics. Analyses were conducted separately for males and females using SAS 9.4. Robust standard errors that adjust for multiple children in a family were used to calculate significance levels. From the Pearson Product Moment Correlations for all study and control variables, there was no evidence of collinearity among the variables.

    Ⅲ. Results

    Table 1 shows descriptive statistics of all adolescents and by gender. Adolescents’ depressive symptoms scores were 12.68, with a range of 7-27. The level of depressive symptoms was significantly higher for female adolescents than it was for male adolescents. Externalizing and internalizing problem scores were 19.57 and 17.34, with a range of 15-45 and 13-37, respectively. Females had significantly more internalizing problems compared to males. Respondents spent 7.87 hours per week on average having meals at home. Out of these hours, adolescents spent 2.41 hours having meals alone, and 3.58 hours having meals with parents. The amount of time adolescents spent having meals, whether alone or with parents, did not differ by gender. There were more males in the younger group compared to females. More males were in the group of White adolescents and fewer males were in the group of Latino adolescents. Parents’ education level, family structure, and SES did not differ by gender. Female adolescents had more academic interests and more problems with peers than males, while there was no difference in perceived closeness to parents between males and females.

    More time spent having meals alone was significantly associated with increased depressive symptoms for male adolescents (Table 2). Meanwhile, amount of time having meals with parents was not associated with neither behavior problems nor depressive symptoms for males. Some individual and parent/family backgrounds were associated with male adolescents’ behavior problems. African American male adolescents, those with college educated parents, and those with a greater number of children in the household were likely to exhibit more externalizing problems, whereas male adolescents who showed a high degree of academic interest and those who perceived they felt close to their parents were likely to exhibit fewer externalizing problems.

    A factor associated with increased internalizing problems among male adolescents was when they had problems with peer relationships. Asian male adolescents and those who had problems with peer relationships were likely to exhibit more depressive symptoms. Those who perceived they felt close to their parents were likely to exhibit fewer externalizing problems. A factor associated with increased internalizing problems among male adolescents was when they had problems with peer relationships. Asian male adolescents and those who had problems with peer relationships were likely to exhibit more depressive symptoms.

    As for the females, more time spent having meals with parents was significantly associated with decreased depressive symptoms and marginally associated with decreased externalizing problems(Table 3). Meanwhile, the amount of time female adolescents spent having meals alone was associated with neither behavior problems nor depressive symptoms. In terms of individual and parent/family backgrounds, female adolescents whose parents had more than a high school education were likely to show fewer externalizing problems. African American female adolescents and those with a parent who was a high school diploma holder were likely to show fewer internalizing problems, while those who had problems with peer relationships were likely to show more internalizing problems and depressive symptoms.

    Ⅳ. Discussion

    The purpose of the current study was to examine the benefits of mealtime with parents by measuring the amount of time adolescents spent on having meals with their parents as opposed to time spent on having meals alone. Findings indicate that average U.S. adolescents spent almost 8 hours per week having meals at home, and of that time, they spent about 3.6 hours having meals with their parents and 2.4 hours having meals alone. The amount of time spent having meals with parents (3.6 hours) is slightly more than was measured by Offer[27] (3.25 hours) using the 500 Family Study Project surveyed in 1999/2000 from eight urban and suburban areas in the U.S. A protective role of mealtime with parents was found only for females, whereas risks related to spending mealtimes alone were found only for males.

    Consistent with previous research findings on gender differences in the effect of family mealtime[10, 24, 36], the benefits of mealtime with parents were manifested especially among females. This may be because females are more likely to concern themselves with communication and interpersonal relationships with others compared to males[7, 16], and they benefited more from building their relationships with parents during mealtimes. It is well known that shared time with parents represents the quality of time for parent-child interactions and communication[6, 17, 21], so perhaps the females, who are more attuned to interpersonal contexts, may have perceived parental support and monitoring when they had meals with their parents, resulting in decreased stress and increasing confidence. Another possible explanation is that household work has been reported to be associated with female adolescents’ competence in their work/performance[30], and as a part of household work, the preparing, serving, and cleaning that were considered part of mealtimes (in addition to eating) may had added benefits for females beyond the time they spent with parents.

    Having meals with parents can be regarded as a venue for socialization, not just physically being together for the purpose of eating. More time with parents means more opportunity for parents to transmit their values and beliefs[35]. Our finding of benefits from mealtimes with parents suggests that the positive association between family mealtimes and adolescents’ health may be due mostly to healthier relationships, in the form of more communication and interaction between parents and adolescents, rather than a simple consensus about the time/place for family meals and willingness to participate.

    One of the most frequent difficulties getting in the way of families having meals together is parents’ and adolescents’ schedules[24]. Parents’ work schedules may not allow them to participate in mealtimes every day, and this is especially true for families from low socioeconomic backgrounds[26]. But our findings from measuring the total amount of time per week spent having meals with parents suggest that mealtime together may not need to be a daily routine: even if it occurs a couple of times a week, it can be beneficial when the amount of time spent together is long enough for quality interactions. Parents do not need to feel guilty for not having enough time to have meals with children during weekdays. Parents can plan and block times for family meals with their children to spend time together, even if only on weekend days. Another reason why adolescents may spend less time having meals with parents is that adolescents intentionally avoid their parents, or parents and adolescents may not endorse the importance of family mealtimes[24]. Interventions should identify what contextual factors prevent adolescents from participating in family mealtimes, and focus on promoting parents’ and adolescents’ interest in spending time together.

    This study has several strengths that enhance its contributions to the extant research. To measure mealtime, most previous research has used the frequency of having meals with family/parents during the past/average/typical week[10, 14, 26, 20]. However, the frequency with which families eat together does not tell us whether the time spent was long enough for parents and adolescents to connect with one another. In this study, mealtimes were measured using time diaries to obtain hours per week, which is more objective and less prone to a social desirability bias compared to asking respondents the frequency with which they engage in the target activity[4, 15]. In respondents’ direct reports, they tend to exaggerate socially desirable time and answer questions in stereotypical ways, especially questions about parent-child relationships and activities[3].

    Another strength of this study is that mealtime with parents functions as a proxy measure of family togetherness and functioning. We included time for eating as well as time spent on meal preparation, serving food, and cleaning up. Mealtime with parents is conceived of as a socialization activity, which may help explain different influences of mealtime with parents by gender in terms of how individuals accept the context and involve themselves in the activity. In addition, time spent having meals alone was included, helping to distinguish between different mealtime contexts and their effects. Also, this study used nationally representative data to show mealtime companionship and extrapolate the possible influences for the U.S. adolescent population. Our findings can be applied to the general U.S. population across the nation.

    We should also address several limitations. This study did not include the full range of factors about peers and school environment, which become more salient for adolescents. This study did not exclude time connected to electronic devices (cell phone, tablet PC, or other game machines) while having meals with parents or alone; therefore, it may not be clear whether adolescents were occupied by other activities in some way or whether they remained open to interactions with their parents[25]. Further studies should investigate the amount of time spent on such secondary activities, and should include more peer and school environment measures. Also, our cross-sectional analysis does not allow for inferences about causal relationships. The significant association between spending mealtimes alone and depressive symptoms among male adolescents may be because mealtimes alone led to unpleasant and disturbing emotions or because depressed adolescents avoided spending time with others. A longitudinal study is planned when the next wave of PSID and CDS with time diary data is available, which will tell us more about causal relationships. Lastly, this study focused on the general U.S. adolescent population, not specific sub-groups. It will be important to examine whether family/parent mealtimes have the same effects across different cultural sub-groups or for a specific high-risk population.

    V. Implications and Contribution

    Previous studies have suggested that family mealtimes may promote family relationships, strengthen family intimacy, and provide more opportunities for communication, all of which resulted in positive effects on adolescents’ behavioral and emotional health. This study confirmed the previous findings, and additionally found that mealtimes specifically with parents benefited adolescents, and that these benefits were stronger for females. This gender difference in the positive association between adolescent health and mealtimes with parents suggests that parental monitoring and support can be delivered to females in less instructive and less directive ways. More time with parents may play a protective role as a form of indirect surveillance and monitoring. Mealtimes with parents should be encouraged. Parents need to be instructed in how to use mealtimes together to interact more with their adolescents, from preparing the meal to cleaning up together.

    Our finding of a negative association between mealtime alone and adolescent health contributes to current extant research by suggesting that this unsupervised time may open up more opportunities for male adolescents to experience emotional stress. Finding a way of reducing time spent alone and identifying contextual factors that discourage male adolescents from participating in mealtimes with parents is as important as encouraging increasing the amount of time they spend with parents.



    Descriptives of Variables, for All Adolescents and by Gender
    (Note) Ns are not weighted. Data are weighted.
    Regression Coefficients of Male Adolescents’ Behavior Problems and Depression
    +<i>p</i> <.10,
    *<i>p</i> <.05,
    ***<i>p</i> <.001
    Regression Coefficients of Female Adolescents’ Behavior Problems and Depression
    +<i>p</i> <.10,
    *<i>p</i> <.05,
    ***<i>p</i> <.001


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