The positive effects of family meals are well-known; still, it’s so easy to slip during the teen years! The excuses are varied and often valid: After-school clubs and sports get in the way. So do jobs and social events, for both parents and children. Parents want to start loosening those apron strings — and they should — but eliminating family dinners is not a good place to start.
Why does it matter?
A 2007, 20-page report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found parental engagement to be the “one factor that does more to reduce teens’ substance abuse risk than any other…” and that the best avenue for this engagement is “frequent family dinners.” By frequent, they mean five or more a week.
In extensive surveys, CASA found that 81 percent to 84 percent of teens preferred to have dinner with their families. Their research also showed that the older teens are, the less likely they are to eat with their families, and instead eat alone at fast-food restaurants or at a friend’s. This is troubling. Consider this from the report: “Substance abuse risk score decreases as the frequency of family dinners increases, regardless of age [of the child].”
The lowered risk of substance abuse is not the only benefit of family dinners. CASA also found that teens who had fewer than three family dinners a week are more than twice as likely to have problems academically. A 2008 report from the University of Minnesota Medical School published in the Journal of Adolescent Health echoed CASA’s findings, revealing “a link between regular family meals and a lower risk of high-risk behaviors, including violence, school problems and substance abuse.”
How to do it
Face it, there’s not a lot of opportunity to spend time with your older teen. Gone are the days of trips to the zoo — or even the mall! — together. Family mealtimes work because the dinner table is one of the last places left to facilitate meaningful conversations. Author and lecturer Silvana Clark of Bellingham and her daughter Sondra surveyed hundreds of girls: They say many of the girls said they wished they could spend more time with their families.
Wrangling teens to the table, though, can be a chore — especially if you let it slide in their middle-school years. “Dinner is an ideal time to be together if parents don’t turn it into a time for nagging and constant reminders about chores, etc.,” Clark says.
Kirk Martin, director of education at Celebrate Calm, a group that works with the families of intense children, recommends creating an environment your kids will enjoy. “Most kids like to cook,” says Martin. Encouraging your teen to help in planning menus, shopping and preparation gives them a sense of ownership in the meal and teaches some great life lessons along the way. Once teens are driving, they can help out by getting groceries without mom or dad in tow. Many experts suggest allowing your teen to plan and prepare the entire meal on their own.
Bob Lancer, author of Parenting with Love, Without Anger or Stress, reminds parents to honor their teen’s feelings and diet concerns. “Very sensitive teens who lean strongly toward vegetarianism may sincerely feel repulsed by the sight of others eating meat,” says Lancer. He goes on to say that families do not need to cater 100 percent to a teen’s inclinations, but they should at least show respect for it.
In a perfect world, we could all manage family meals every night, but with sports, activities and work-related time constraints, fitting in dinner can be problematic. Silvana Clark suggests working around schedules whenever possible. When her daughter had drama practice at 5 p.m., the family sat down at 4:15 and had a modified dinner of salad. If soccer practice was on the schedule, they brought picnic dinners and ate on the field. “The point was, we ate together,” says Clark. Eating late is also an option, so long as healthy snacks are provided to keep everyone’s blood sugar from plummeting.
Seattle mom Lisa P. welcomes her son’s friends for dinner at least once a week. “Some of the kids don’t get dinner at home, and they really seem to enjoy it,” she says. Gwen D. says that she just laid down the law: “Thursdays and Sundays are family- dinner nights. Thursdays are ‘bring a friend’ night, but Sundays are reserved for just family.”
It’s important to try to accommodate everyone’s schedules, including those of the parents. Parents who always work late or are rushing off to meetings can send the signal that family meals are not that important. If once a week is all you can manage, then do that, but work to fit more in whenever possible.
Once you get the kids to the table, it’s important to talk to them without nagging. Gwen D. says on Thursdays, they discuss plans for the coming weekend. On Sundays, they discuss the coming week. “We’ve been following this plan for the last five years and it’s worked well,” she says.
“Planning things is always a good topic because there’s no performance anxiety as when parents discuss their teens’ school work or social life,” says teen coach Margit Crane. Other families have rituals like going around the table and having each person tell of a high point of their day. Then they repeat with a low point. Some select a topic for the meal. It can be frivolous — the latest film or fashion — or deep, like global climate change. Each family has to find what works for them.
Perhaps Michele S. put it best, “If we aren’t finding ways to be at the table with out kids, they aren’t going to find it a priority to be with us. If we do make our kids the priority, they will understand their value as a part of the family community and want to be full participants.”
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer who lives in South Seattle with her husband and 13-year-old daughter. They eat together as a family at least six times a week.