How Family Meals Help Teens

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FAND, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Recent research at Columbia University found that children who regularly had dinner with their families are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and more likely to do better in school. In fact, studies show the best-adjusted children are those who eat with an adult at least 5 times a week, says Ann Von Berber, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. 

“Many studies support the importance of family mealtime in decreasing the incidence of teens who smoke, drink alcohol, participate in sex at a young age, start fights, get suspended from school, or commit suicide,” says Von Berber.  This may be because families that eat together also communicate more often. Family mealtimes are a way to increase the time you spend talking — but making a point to just hang out and spend time talking can help even more.

Teens who frequently eat family meals may have healthier eating habits as young adults, nutrition experts report.  What are the specific benefits of family meals for teens? Nutrition Experts at the University of Minnesota came up this list:

  • Perk No. 1: Teens who frequently eat meals with their families are more likely than their peers to eat more fruits and vegetables — and drink fewer sodas — as young adults.
  • Perk No. 2: Teens who often eat family meals are more likely than their peers to make it a priority to eat with family and friends as young adults.
  • Perk No. 3: Teen girls who frequently eat family meals are more likely than their peers to eat breakfast as young women.

Those findings are based on 946 Minnesota female teens and 764 male teens who completed surveys about their eating habits in high school and again five years later.  About 42% of the high school students said they ate with their families three to six times per week, and more than 18% said they ate family meals at least seven times per week.  But five years later, even those students didn’t have stellar eating habits. They still didn’t eat enough fruit, vegetables, whole grains, calcium-rich foods, and certain nutrients (such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium), reported Nicole Larson, MPH, RD, and colleagues.

Nevertheless, parents and food and nutrition professionals should encourage families to share meals as often as possible. After all, family meals are an opportunity for parents to model healthy eating habits.  These are the habits that kids pick up often, and they spill over into adulthood. Adults need to make sure they are demonstrating healthy habits with youth of all ages. Taking small steps to improve the consumption of healthy snacks and meals is essential for overall health and wellness.