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January 08, 2024

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.  

"Family meals are the strongest factor that we've come across in any activity that families do," said William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "It really tops them all as a predictor and contributor of a wide range of positive behavior." 

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. (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.  

Families have for years been privileging sports practice and dance lessons and homework routines ahead of family mealtimes, mistakenly convincing themselves that extracurriculars or academics are more important for their child’s future than uninterrupted parent-child quality time around the meal table (see Sacred Spaces With Kids). It's not always easy for parents to find 20, 30 or more minutes — the time a proper meal requires — to focus attention on the youngsters, but it’s a challenge worth meeting.  

Here are some suggestions when instituting family meals: 

  • 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, re-think those schedules. And if some weeknight meals aren’t practical, consider an unhurried breakfast.  
  • 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. Don’t forget to share appropriate stories from your own life. And find ways to laugh together. 

When regular family meals are sacrificed on the altar of busyness, the kids are missing out on an important precursor to good mental health. Give your commitment to your kids’ emotional well-being something more than lip service.