The Importance of Family Dinners

If you want to prevent your teenager from abusing alcohol or other drugs, then eat dinner with him or her on most days of the week. This is just one finding about the power of family dinners from a study published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) in September.

This study, “The Importance of Family Dinners II,” was sponsored by TV Land and Nick at Nite’s Family Table. It follows up on CASA’s first family dinner study, released in 2003. Both are part of annual back-to-school surveys conducted by CASA over the past decade.

This research has consistently shown that teenagers who eat dinner more often with their families are less likely to drink, smoke cigarettes, or use other drugs.

The most recent study compared two specific groups: teenagers who have two or less family dinners per week and those who have five or more per week. Those who ate two or less family dinners were:

– Three times more likely to try marijuana.
– Two-and-a-half times more likely to smoke cigarettes.
– One-and-a-half times more likely to drink alcohol.

In addition, the study reveals that families who eat together less often also have lower-quality experiences at the dinner table. Teenagers in this group were more likely to dine with a television on, remain silent during meals, and state that their family dinners were too short.

CASA researchers also correlated more frequent family dinners with:

– Lower levels of family tension.
– Teenagers who more often said that their parents are proud of them.
– Teenagers who more often said that they can confide in their parents about a serious problem.

Households that combine more frequent family dinners with all three of the above characteristics cut their risks for teenage substance abuse in half.

CASA’s research confirms the common-sense notion that shared dinners make for stronger families. Yet many parents are challenged to put this simple idea into practice, notes Becky Sechrist, who directs a parenting program called “Shoulder to Shoulder: Raising Teens Together” for the Minnesota Institute of Public Health.

The problem, as the study points out, is that there isn’t enough time to go around,” Sechrist says. “Between after-school activity schedules, parent’s work schedules, and a variety of other things, making connections within the family requires a concerted effort these days.” She offers the following suggestions:

Make it a requirement. Set a non-negotiable rule about the number of dinners that your teenager is expected to eat with you each week. “This might feel, for the teen, that it comes at the expense of less time for after-school activities, friends or an after-school job,” says Sechrist. “The payoff in the long run for both parents and teens will be worth it.

Involve teenagers in all phases of the meal. Whenever possible, involve teenagers in planning and preparing their favorite meals. Your children will more often come to the dinner table as willing participants if you do this.

Make meals enjoyable. While it isn’t always possible to avoid discussions on controversial topics–for example, homework and peer groups–effort should be made to talk about things that interest all members of the family and won’t cause conflict.


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