Column: Meals provide important family time

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 2, 2006

QUESTION: Is it true that research now shows that teenagers who eat dinner more often with their families are less likely to drink, smoke cigarettes, or use other drugs?

ANSWER: A recent study compared two specific groups: teenagers who have two or less family dinners per week and those who have five or more per week. Those who ate two or less family dinners were three times more likely to try marijuana, 2.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes and 1.5 times more likely to drink alcohol.&160; Researchers also&160;linked more frequent family dinners with lower levels of family tension, teens who more often said that their parents are proud of them and teens who more often said that they can talk to their parents about a serious problem.

This research confirms the common-sense notion that shared dinners make for stronger families. Yet many parents are challenged to put this simple idea into practice because there isn’t enough time to go around. Between after-school activity schedules, parents’ work schedules, peer groups and homework, making connections in the family requires a lot of effort these days. Here are a few suggestions that might help:

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Make it a requirement. Set a non-negotiable rule about the number of dinners that your teenager is expected to eat with you each week.

Involve teenagers in all phases of the meal. Involve teenagers in planning and preparing their favorite meals.

Make meals enjoyable. While it isn’t always possible to avoid discussions on touchy topics &045; for example, homework and peer groups &045; effort should be made to talk about things that interest all members of the family and won’t cause conflict.

Make it take-out. Or a late supper or even dinner out. The important thing is the time talking together, not a fancy meal at exactly the same time each night.

Ask open-ended questions. What could we do to have more fun as a family? What’s your dream job? Questions like these are more likely to open up conversations.

Keep eating together as your teenager matures. The research also showed that the number of family meals declined as teens got older. At the same time, the risk of using substances is going up. Even through your teen is nearing adulthood, 16- or 17-year-olds still need guidance, support and a connection to their parents.&160;&160;&160;

If you would like to talk about the challenges of raising children, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204/L nea de Apoyo at 877-434-9528.&160; For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599.&160; Check out

Maryanne Law is the executive director of the Parenting Resource Center in Austin.