Family mealtimes and eating psychopathology: the role of anxiety and depression among adolescent girls and boys

Characteristics of family mealtimes are associated with disordered eating behaviours. However, little is known about the relationships between characteristics of family mealtimes and disordered eating attitudes, or how symptoms of anxiety or depression may contribute to these relationships. This study therefore aimed to examine differences between adolescent girls and boys in the relationship between family mealtime characteristics and eating psychopathology, and to explore the influence of anxiety and depression on this relationship. Adolescents (N = 535; 286 girls and 249 boys) aged 14 to 18 years completed self-report measures of family mealtime characteristics, eating psychopathology, anxiety and depression. Reports of more frequent family mealtimes, a more positive mealtime atmosphere and a high level of priority placed on mealtimes were all associated with significantly lower levels of eating-disordered attitudes among girls only. For boys, all four mealtime measures (higher mealtime frequency, more positive mealtime atmosphere, greater priority of mealtimes and higher levels of mealtime structure) were associated with lower levels of depression. Among girls, several of the family mealtime and eating psychopathology relationships were partially or fully mediated by either anxiety or depression. While these findings require longitudinal replication, family mealtimes are likely to be important in promoting psychological well-being among both girls and boys. Families should be encouraged to think beyond the frequency of mealtimes and to foster a positive mealtime environment which may help to promote adolescent psychological wellbeing, and might even protect young females against the development of eating psychopathology.