Musick and Meier (2012) use a large American data set to test associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being. The background to this is that family dinners have reached mythical status in the US, been described as a magic bullet to prevent/cure everything from deteriorating family relationships, to depression and eating disorders. Through more careful analysis, Musick and Meier discover that the effect of family dinners is mostly due to the fact that more affluent, well-educated, white parents are more likely to host family dinners than are their less advantaged counterparts. It's a sign of having your shit together as a middle-class American parent to eat dinner together as a family.
Almost 20 years ago I was chatting with an American colleague who was doing some analysis on the Twins Early Development Study, a twin study of all the twins born in England and Wales in 1994 & 1995. My colleague was questioning the accuracy of the data because the item about family dinners wasn't working properly. He said that it should be correlating with household organisation and parent-child relationship quality, and it wasn't. This was one of those times that my cross-cultural upbringing came into its own. I was not the least bit surprised. The twins were only 3 years old. As I explained, any British family with their shit together feeds young children at 5, and gets them to bed by 7 so that the parents can enjoy a civilised dinner at 7:30 or 8.
Don't get me wrong, I can see that family dinners are a great way to actually talk to one another, model good eating behaviours, engender a sense of family cohesion. But these family processes can happen at other times and in other ways too. I'm definitely not ready to give up my civilised adult meal times.