Although previous research documents that having dinner together as a family positively relates to long-run child and family outcomes, one aspect of family dinner that has not been explored previously is the role that dinner timing may play in facilitating or hindering parental time investments in their children. We use time diary data for roughly 41,000 families from the nationally representative American Time Use Survey (2003–2019) to examine whether the timing of family dinner is correlated with differential parental time investments in children during the evening. We find that parents who start dinner as a family before the median time (6:15 p.m.) spend more quality time in the evening with their children, including more time reading and playing with their children. The relationship cannot be explained by observable family constraints, as it is stable regardless of parental labor force activity and the day of the week. Additionally, parents who eat dinner later do not reallocate quality time to other times of the day. These findings suggest that having dinner earlier may be an important mechanism facilitating parental time investments in children.
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Family dinner is but one type of routine which has been associated with better child outcomes (Ferretti & Bub, 2014; Anderson & Whitaker, 2010), and despite mostly positive correlations, the causal link between family dinner and child outcomes remains an open question (Miller et al., 2012). Moreover, variation in the quality of family interactions during meals along multiple dimensions should not be overlooked (Saltzman et al., 2019; Skeer & Ballard, 2013).
The simplicity of this binary categorization makes it our preferred way of summarizing our results, though we find similar patterns when using more flexible group definitions, as introduced in Section 4.
Our quality time measure captures shared time between adults and children where a reasonable amount of interaction occurs. See Appendix Table 12 for more detail.
The ATUS does not code “feeding a child.” Parents who may have fed children while not eating themselves are not identifiable and are excluded.
The ATUS indicates that at least one child was present as a parent eats and doesn’t specify if the child(ren) also eat.
Results are not sensitive to dropping observations with multiple evening eating events or assigning the later of two eating events as the dinner event.
The distribution of dinner timing is bell-shaped and nearly symmetric. The variance of dinner time below the median (0.34) is less than the variance above the median (0.52), and the difference in variances is due to observations in the right tail.
Appendix Table 12 documents the construction of this measure in more detail. Some of these measures are only collected by the ATUS for children 12 and under.
The number of workers over the age of 16 in a metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area (MSA) are recorded in numerous commute time bins. We assign the MSA’s weighted average of the midpoint of these bins (the “over 90 minutes” bin is assigned 105 min) to the ATUS families living in the geographic area.
Median dinner time is a good cut-point using an ordered logit model with ten 30-min increments through the evening.
The table reports average marginal effects, meaning effects are calculated for each observation and then averaged.
When restricting the analysis to parents with children age six and under, the magnitudes are similar compared to the full sample.
The equivalent of Appendix Fig. 5 using total time is also similar.
We also use categorical variables measuring which decile of the dinner timing distribution a parent is in.
We find a similar pattern when we evaluate deciles in the dinner timing distribution, rather than 30-min. increments, as seen in Appendix Table A3.
Among respondents with jobs, 55% work at some point prior to dinner on the sample day, and 37% were working away from home at 2 p.m. on the sample day.
Additionally, for married respondents, conditional on being married, a spouse’s usual work hours negatively associates with the probability of having dinner early; however, the magnitude is very small. A spouse’s age, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment do not predict the probability of having dinner early.
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Price, J., Rodgers, L.P. & Wikle, J.S. Dinner timing and human capital investments in children. Rev Econ Household (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-021-09554-x
- Human capital development
- Family dinner
- Investments in children