Teens who regularly eat family meals may get more than a home-cooked meal, researchers report.
Adolescents who ate with their family most often did better in school and were less likely to use drugs and alcohol and to have symptoms of depression or physical problems than those who ate with their family less often, results of a new study show.
“Family meals appear to have important health benefits for teenagers, so we would encourage families to prioritize this activity to the extent possible,” lead author Dr. Marla E. Eisenberg of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis told Reuters Health.
Reaping the benefits of family meals does not mean that families have to make radical changes to their lifestyle, according to Eisenberg.
“We found that even a difference of one or two meals together per week had health benefits,” she said.
And what’s on the menu is not as important as the family atmosphere.
“It doesn’t need to be a gourmet meal that someone slaved over. Simple meals or healthy take-out is just fine,” according to Eisenberg.
Of course, job responsibilities, after-school activities and other obstacles can make it difficult for families to gather around the table each night.
Policy changes, such as requiring after-school activities to end by 6 p.m. may help families have meals together, according to Eisenberg. Also, changing the expectation that many 9-to-5 employees will consistently work late may also help families meet around the table more often, she added.
The benefits of family meals are well known. Besides providing children with routine and consistency, they also offer children an opportunity to learn about communication, manners, nutrition and good eating habits, Eisenberg and her colleagues point out in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
But little research has looked at the possibility that family meals are simply a sign of a close family. The idea is that families that are more connected with each other may be more likely to dine together, and that it is this connectedness that leads to healthier children.
Family connectedness certainly plays some role in children’s health, but Eisenberg’s team has found that family meals seem to have an effect on teens’ health independent of family closeness.
The findings were based on more than 4,700 adolescents who were asked about how often they ate family meals as well as how close they felt to their parents.
Almost 27 percent of teens said they ate at least seven meals a week with their families. About a third said they ate family meals once or twice a week or never.
Even after researchers accounted for family closeness, family meals were related to several benefits to teens, the researchers report.
The more family meals teens ate per week, the less often they used drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Family meals were also associated with fewer mental health problems, such as low self- esteem, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Teens who broke bread with their families often also tended to do better in school.
Family meals seemed to have the biggest impact on girls, although boys also benefited.
Eisenberg and her colleagues suggest that one way that family meals may help teens stay out of trouble is by giving parents a chance to “check-in” with their children to notice any problems. In addition, time spent at the dinner table is time not spent with friends away from parental supervision, the authors note.
SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, August 2004.
Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD