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A tomato wedge on a fork above a salad bowl.

U of M research shows that as the amount of family meals together goes up, the percentage of students engaging in risky behavior goes down.

Dinnertime: Nourishing and nurturing

nourishing and nurturing

By Jamie Proulx

Originally published on August 26, 2004

We learned table manners there, reluctantly spent time with our siblings there, and nurtured our bodies (literally) there. It was at the dinner table that we discussed the day's events, and it may have been the only place the whole family gathered each day. Now University of Minnesota research suggests that dinnertime might provide much more.

Marla Eisenberg of the University Medical School's Center for Adolescent Health and Development is the lead author of new research that studies the connection between the frequency of family meals in the home and young people's health and behavioral choices. After surveying nearly 5,000 middle school- and high school-aged students in the Twin Cities, the researchers found that almost 30 percent ate meals with their family at least seven times per week. This group of students reported higher grades in school and were less likely to smoke cigarettes, use alcohol, and smoke marijuana. Perhaps most importantly, these students also reported fewer symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide.

This study may be most exciting for families struggling to connect with growing teenagers. The benefits of family dining came through for all students, including those without strong relationships with their parents.

As the amount of family meals together goes down, the percentage of students engaging in risky behavior goes up. For example, of those who shared at least seven meals per week, 17 percent of the girls and 22 percent of the boys smoked. Out of students who did not share any meals per week, 50 percent of the girls and 36 percent of the boys smoked. The results are similar for alcohol and marijuana use.

Beyond substance abuse, it was found that families who routinely eat meals together also read together and devote more time to homework. Adolescent eating habits are healthier and there were fewer reports of unhealthy sexual activity.

Girls appear to benefit from the family time even more than boys, although it is unclear why. "Girls may be particularly sensitive to the nuances of family interactions, and the frequency of family meals may therefore be more important to their behavioral and emotional health," the researchers theorized.

This study may be most exciting for families struggling to connect with growing teenagers. The benefits of family dining came through for all students, including those without strong relationships with their parents.

Eisenberg and her colleagues concluded that family dinners could be treated as a protective measure for young adults as they grow and learn about making good decisions. More research is needed to understand why regular meals are giving young adults emotional and physical nourishment, but it appears that families have another tool in creating healthy, successful adults.