I—like most parents—want my kids to grow up well. The truth, however, is that it isn’t always easy to eat dinner together as a family. In fact, CASA researchers have found that when they asked teens and parents why they didn’t eat dinner more often together, the two groups of people blamed each other. The number one response for teens? Parents were either at work or had a late work shift. The number one response for parents? Everybody is busy and has different activities.
Research studies, however, continue to highlight the power of family dinners. Now a new study from CASA at Columbia University has been released, and it says that teenagers who don’t eat dinner frequently with their family are:
• Twice as likely to use tobacco
• Almost twice as likely to use to alcohol
• More likely to use marijuana
The same is true with grades in school. Teenagers who have five to seven family dinners per week are more likely to get As and Bs in school. Teenagers who have fewer than three family dinners per week are twice as likely to report receiving mostly Cs and lower grades in school.
So what’s a busy parent to do?
I’m a prime example! Even though one of my kids is away at college, the schedule with our other teenager is still packed. My husband often travels on business. He’s taking graduate classes in addition to working full-time. My 14-year-old has co-curricular activities on three school nights, one after school, and a weekend activity. I purposefully have the most flexible schedule, which is great on one hand because it means I eat almost every dinner with my family. But the flexible schedule also means that sometimes I’m working at 11 p.m. at night because all the other family members’ scheduled activities have interrupted my workday.
Still, we eat together for dinner. We know it’s a family activity that’s critical, and it’s one we work hard to do every day if possible.
But that’s part of the trick. What if it’s not possible? I met one family who could never eat dinner together. The schedules were too conflicting with two parents and four kids. So they discovered another solution: They were always together at 6:30 a.m. so they mandated a family breakfast every day.
I believe their family breakfast is working as well as our family dinners.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter which meal you eat together. What matters is doing it as often as you can and then making the time worthwhile. I remember when our kids were young. Family dinners were chaotic. Young children don’t sit still well. They don’t always want to eat what you serve them. They’d rather play with their food. In fact, I called them our family dinners “messy meals” because a lot of time they were really messy.
But by going through the mess and chaos, my kids learned the value of eating together as a family. They also learned that gathering for a meal is more than just about eating. When one of my teenagers tried to get out of family meals by saying he had “already eaten,” he was surprised when I asked him to join us anyway. Not for him to eat. But for us all to be together and talk.
At first, he wasn’t thrilled with this idea, but he eventually caught on. Over time, he also stopped snacking right before dinner so that he actually had an appetite to eat something while the rest of us ate together. (It’s amazing what kids try in order to test whether or not a family meal really is important.)
So whenever they test the idea, make sure you pass the test. Tell them that you want them to grow up well and that eating together as a family helps that.
Then get eating as a family. Talk about what’s going on in your lives. Tell jokes. Discuss current events. Gently tease each other in ways that encourage family members to draw closer together. Make family meals fun.
What’s your experience of eating together as a family?
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, “The Importance of Family Dinners VI” September 2010, http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/NewsRoom.aspx?articleid=604&zoneid=51
ParentFurther, Time together