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Teens and family meals

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

There’s something special about sitting down for family meals. Meal time is beneficial as a regular time to check in with teens, making it easier to spot a problem before it gets out of hand — whether it’s through conversation or noticing changes in your teen’s behavior. Regular, healthy meals can also help to manage teens’ stress. Work to make family meals part of your family’s routine.

How family meals help

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has conducted national surveys on family dinners since 1999. CASA compares teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) to teens who have infrequent family dinners (less than three per week). Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, those who have infrequent family dinners are:

  • Twice as likely to use tobacco.
  • Nearly twice as likely to use alcohol.
  • One and a half times more likely to use marijuana.

CASA focused on dinner time, which may be the easiest time of day for many families to eat together. Other studies have looked at the benefits of family meals regardless of time of day. Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), a research study at the University of Minnesota, found that both parents and teens viewed family meals positively, including seeing it as a positive atmosphere, an enjoyable time together, and as an occasion to talk and connect. Results from Project EAT also suggested that having regular family meals, regardless of time of day, can have long lasting benefits in preventing teen substance use.

It’s all about relationships

What is most important about family mealtime is the conversations that can happen and connections that can be made. Typically, teens are spending less time with family and more time with peers, so family mealtime is a natural time to be together. Although it may be easier to establish family meals when children are younger, parents of teens should not give up on the idea if they have not had family meals in the past. The good news in the CASA survey was that among teens who reported infrequent dinners, 60% said they would like to have dinner with parents more often.

In a survey with teens and parents, CASA also explored what happens in the parent-teen relationship during family dinners. Teens who had frequent family dinners were more likely to report that they talked to their parents about day-to-day experiences compared to those teens who had infrequent family dinners. In addition, three-quarters of teens (75%) said they talk to their parents about what’s going on in their lives at dinner, and about three-quarters of parents (79%) agreed that by having dinner together they learned more about what was going on in their teens’ lives.

How to start having family meals

Hectic lives can get in the way of having frequent family dinners. The CASA survey identified “too busy or different activities” and “at work or late shifts” as the two major reasons families did not have frequent family dinners. In addition, not knowing what to serve can also be a barrier. Family members may feel they do not have the skills to prepare a healthy meal and may rely on takeout, convenience foods, or snack items.

But in today’s busy world, the family meal may be one of the few times the family can relax and be together to share what’s happening in daily life. Here are some suggestions to get started.

  • Start with a goal of one or two meals together per week. Once you achieve that, work toward more frequent family meals.
  • Ask other family members to help with menu planning, grocery shopping, and food preparation.
  • Choose a time when all or most family members can be present.
  • Enlist support for having family meals from adults and kids in the home, so you can work together to get everyone in the family on the same page.
  • Turn off the television; mealtime is a time to talk with one another.
  • Turn off cell phones and leave them in a different room to discourage everyone from texting or answering phone calls and encourage all family members to be present.
  • Make the time together pleasant. Encourage each family member to talk about his or her day — try asking everyone to share the silliest thing that happened in their day, or what they are most proud of or frustrated with. Mealtime is not the time for discipline.

Don’t be discouraged if family members are not receptive at first; keep trying. Kathleen Ferrigno, CASA’s director of marketing has this advice for parents:

“The message for parents couldn’t be any clearer. With the recent rise in the number of Americans age 12 and older who are using drugs, it is more important than ever to sit down to dinner and engage your children in conversation about their lives, their friends, school — just talk. Ask questions and really listen to their answers. The magic that happens over family dinners isn’t about the food on the table, but the communication and conversation around it.”

Related resources

Project EAT: ResourcesUniversity of Minnesota School of Public Health — Scroll down to “Resources.”

Family DayNational Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse — Launched in 2001, CASA Family Day is a national movement to celebrate parental engagement as an effective tool to help keep America’s kids substance free.

The Kansas Family Nutrition Program, SNAP-Ed— Find links to resources on family nutrition.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator in family relations

Revised 2016 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Department of Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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