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Family Meals: More Than Good Nutrition

If you don't have a family meal each day, it's time to get out the plates. Table time yields benefits that go far beyond food.

Research shows that the more often children eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University says. The center compared teens who dined with families five or seven times a week with those who did so twice or less. Those who ate together more often were four times less likely to smoke, 2.5 times less likely to use marijuana, and half as likely to drink alcohol.

Teens who regularly eat dinner with their families are also more likely to get better grades and do better in school, CASA says. Better grades are associated with a lower risk for substance abuse.

Teens who eat with their families fewer than three times a week report that the TV is usually on during dinner or that the family does not talk much. Conversely, families where teens are frequently present at dinner find lots to talk about, CASA says. Common topics include school and sports; friends and social events; current events; and even family issues and problems.

Family dinners have a similar link to mental health, CASA says. Adolescents and young adults who seek treatment for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems are about half as likely as their peers to have regular family meals.

Why? For one thing, mealtimes give children a chance to talk with parents about things that bother them.

Teens that frequently eat with their families are more likely to say their parents are proud of them, CASA says. These teens say their parents are people they can confide in. They also have half the risk for substance abuse as the average teen.

Children who dine with parents tend to eat better, too. Harvard Medical School says that children who join family dinners eat more fruit, vegetables, minerals, and vitamins. They also eat fewer saturated fats and snacks, and drank less soda.