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Rally 'Round the Meal

September 06, 2010

If the thought of adolescence is enough to turn your stomach, here's something to chew on: eating meals with your teenager may enhance his or her well-being.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the more often adolescents ate with their families, the less likely they were to perform poorly at school, feel depressed or suicidal, and use tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Studies out of Columbia University support these findings, leading investigators to conclude that "dinner makes a difference."

What is it about family mealtime that seems to benefit adolescents? Perhaps it's the time spent checking-in with one another through uninterrupted conversation — despite hectic schedules and distractions — so that teens experience their parents' real interest and know they have a parent on their side. It's not easy nowadays for parents to find 20, 30 or more minutes — the time a proper meal requires — to focus attention on the youngsters. (Indeed, research has found parent-teen communication to be a key ingredient in adolescent mental health.) And it's harder for surreptitious-inclined teens to fly below the radar when they sit face-to-face with mom or dad on a regular basis. Of course, the nutritional value of meals eaten at home often exceeds fast food and microwavable options — a boon for appearance-conscious adolescents who don't need junk calories and fat.

Here are some suggestions to make family meals more palatable:

  • Start when your children are young. If family mealtime is the norm as the kids grow up, you'll encounter less resistance when they morph into moody teens.
  • Don't fret if you're not Martha or Emeril in the kitchen. Carry-out or delivery can rally the troops to the table just as well.
  • When weeknight schedules preclude breaking bread together, carve out time over the weekend for you and your kids to gather around. Consider an unhurried breakfast or brunch.
  • Protect the quality of your mealtime, whether morning or night. Follow the same instructions as when you board a plane: turn off and stow all electronic devices. This is the time to chat: ask your kids what's going well and what's going poorly in their lives, whom they're spending time with, what's their biggest headache lately. Ask thought-provoking questions, tell riddles, share jokes. Find ways to laugh together. Someday, when you face your empty nest, you won't regret having set aside your BlackBerry for a fruitful conversation with the kids who mean so much to you.