Ages & Stages: 11-18: Teens Benefit From Sitting Down to Dinner

The image of a happy family sitting down to a relaxed, healthy meal is iconic and idyllic. Some families observe this ritual regularly, while others think of it as a relic from a past time when lives were less hectic. Two land grant university researchers have investigated the potential benefits of family mealtimes on children and come up with statistics that indicate that families that dine together tend to have healthier, more well-adjusted children.

The Irony of Adolescence
The rapid growth and development of adolescence demands more energy and better nutrition than any other period of life. It is also normal for teens to be busy and yearn for independence, which sometimes takes them away from the family table at mealtimes with after-school and social activities. These factors can work against each other, and against healthy development. U.S. government figures show that only about one-third of children are getting enough fruits, vegetables, grains and milk; that their diets are too high in other areas, such as sugar; and that childhood obesity has doubled and adolescent obesity has tripled.

Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of the University of Minnesota Division of Epidemiology and Community Health has done several studies, together with colleagues, on child and adolescent nutrition and its relationship to health. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota Department of Social Science has devised guidelines for healthy family mealtimes that build upon these studies.

Studies indicate that the more often youth eat with their parents, and the happier, more structured these mealtimes are, the more they benefit from them. The benefits include:
• Better nutrition?— The availability of healthy foods in the home increase the likelihood that youth will eat them. Frequency of family meals was positively associated with intakes of fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods and negatively associated with soft drink consumption.
• Better language and literacy?— Neumark-Sztainer cites studies done by her and others that indicate family mealtimes may be important to speech development. Just as parents read stories to children to expand their vocabularies, they should encourage family conversations during mealtimes to encourage active use of those words. “The strongest correlations for child vocabulary outcomes and specific types of parent-child activity were for mealtime conversations and information book reading,” Neumark-Sztainer writes.
• Less disordered eating?— Neumark-Sztainer found that adolescents were less likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors, such as extreme weight control measures, when they reported more frequent family meals, high priority of family meals in their homes and a positive atmosphere at family meals. In other words, the more important the ritual of dining together, the less likely the teens in the study were to engage in things like self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics. In one study, girls eating 3-4 family meals per week were at approximately half the risk for extreme weight control behaviors and girls eating five or more family meals were at about one-third the risk.
• Fewer risky behaviors?— Teens who have regular meals with their families show higher academic achievement and lower rates of smoking, drinking, marijuana use, getting into fights and early initiation of sexual activity. Interestingly, it is the ritual that seems to be important here, not the number of people present — these findings hold true whether both parents are present for meals or only one parent, one study cited.
• They like it! ?— Despite what teens may say, statistics indicate that they like family mealtimes. Surveys of youth depict positive feelings about family dinners.

Rituals for Today’s Families
Modern life contains obstacles to the mealtime ritual. Families in which parents and children have jobs and after-school activities can mean that there are few nights when all members of the family are at home. Doherty offers some guidelines.
1. Have a fixed time for dinner, but be realistic about everyone’s schedules.
2. Share dinner preparation and clean-up duties, so that no one person feels burdened by them.
3. The ritual starts before the meal, with an ordered call to the table, perhaps a bell five minutes before mealtime. This will help avoid lateness and the ensuing pre-dinner conflict.
4. Do not allow youth to opt out of the meal. The inclusion of every family member emphasizes the importance of the family group, and each person’s membership in it. A surly teenager at the table is better than an absent one.
5. Turn off the TV! Food and conversation are the centerpieces of a family dinner.
6. Keep conversation positive, and discipline to a minimum. Similarly, avoid uncomfortable subjects.
7. Youth should be encouraged to try new foods, but don’t hold dessert hostage over the peas. That old tradition doesn’t actually encourage better eating, nutritionists say.
8. Have a ritual for ending the meal. The adults should signal the end of the meal – this emphasizes the family dinner as a group activity, not an individual one.