Does eating meals together as a family help steer kids away from risky behaviors?

Margie R. Skeer, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, serves up this food for thought

Various studies have determined that eating meals together as a family can reduce the probability that adolescents will smoke, drink and use drugs, as well as lower the incidence of risky sexual behaviors. This is true even after adjusting for family cohesion and connectedness.

It is generally thought that what happens at family meals, rather than the meals themselves, fosters this protective effect. If family meals are frequent and consistent—for example, five or more dinners together each week—mealtime can serve as a conduit for open, ongoing communication, a time when family members talk about their days.

Mealtimes can provide for a baseline level of communication, during which parents (and guardians) can learn about the everyday aspects of their children’s lives—both important and ordinary.

This can create an environment that allows for the development of three crucial features of the parent-child relationship:

· It can facilitate a basic comfort level that enhances the process of communicating in general. That in turn provides a natural framework for discussing more sensitive, difficult topics, such as substance use and sexual health.

· Having meals where everyone talks about their day indicates to children that parents are making them—and their interests—a priority. This conveys a sense of trust, which is critical for both initiating and engaging in what may be difficult conversations.

· Everyday encounters and dedicated time with children during meals can help parents identify changes in patterns, such as clothing, friends and grades, all of which can be indicators of problems that could result in or from substance use and other risky behaviors.

Family mealtimes punctuated by distractions—such as watching television, using a phone to talk or text, using a computer, reading books or the newspaper, listening to music with earphones or doing homework—do not produce the same benefits, though, because these behaviors cut off communication and can diminish or negate the positive effects of mealtime interactions.

Further research about the protective effects of family meals on risky youth behaviors is needed, because the studies that have examined these relationships so far have been observational. The vast majority have considered just the frequency of family meals, not the underlying issues of what actually transpires around the table that directly impact risky behaviors. Regardless, the evidence for frequent and consistent family meals has been so compelling that programs, both national and local, have been instituted to promote this, including the Family Dinner Project and Family Day.

Ultimately, evidence points to the conclusion that children who eat regular meals with their parents fare better with respect to reductions in rates of substance use and sexual risk, as well as mental health problems, violence and aggression and difficulties in school.

However, because of work schedules, child activities and other things that get in the way, not all families are able to eat together on a regular basis. If that is the case, it is recommended that parents find at least 30 minutes each day to talk with their children—for example, in the car on the way to and from school or activities.

Ultimately, family meals offer an environment that can make communication easier. To reiterate, it is not the meal per se that is important, but more so the dialogue and interpersonal exchanges that create the highly beneficial protective effect.

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