Girls (but not boys) who eat with family are less likely to drink, smoke or use pot five years later, U researchers found.
The Sassevilles of Bloomington have dinner as a family each night, a tradition that mom Tina has carried over from her childhood. Jon, at the grill, and Tina, middle, say dining together each night gives them time to connect and communicate. Gaby is left and Erika is at right.
For adolescent girls, the positive impact of sharing regular family meals appears to last throughout their teenage years. Those who ate with their families at least five times a week during middle school were much less likely to drink, smoke or use marijuana five years later, researchers at the University of Minnesota found in a study published today.
But the same was not true for boys. For reasons that the researchers could not explain, regular family meals had no influence on their later substance abuse.
The research is the latest in a series of studies that may be helping to revive the family dinner hour in the United States. Researchers at the university and elsewhere have proven the power of regular family meals to protect kids from unhealthy behavior -- everything from eating disorders to addiction and suicidal thinking. Some previous studies also have shown that the impact is much greater on girls than boys.
The study's lead author said she could only speculate on why boys were not affected. "It's surprising, and as a parent of both a son and a daughter I'm a little at a loss for what to do," said Marla Eisenberg, an assistant professor at the U's School of Public Health who studies adolescent health.
Other research has shown that girls and boys relate differently to their families, she said. Girls could be picking up on subtle positive messages and influence from adults that boys miss, she said.
Family meals are a time to check in, as well as time for parents to be role models, Eisenberg said. "This is where they see where their kids are at, if they are veering to the risky side. Parents can be on top of that earlyon."
"That connection with caring adults is the most protective factor for kids," said David Walsh, head of the National Institute on Media and the Family, and the author of a book on teenage development. "It's more important than income, family status or religion. Family meals are a way to build that connection. It's the way that people have connected for thousands and thousands of years."
Tracking kids over years
This study, published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, relies on surveys of 800 Minnesota school kids taken five years apart. The first, conducted when they were in middle school, found that kids who ate regular family meals consumed more fruits and vegetables, were less depressed and less likely to smoke or use drugs or alcohol.
The second survey was taken when those same kids were teenagers. It found that those family meals eaten during middle school seemed to have a protective effect on girls, regardless of what the researchers described as family connectedness. In other words, even girls who reported that they did not have a great relationship with their parents, but ate with them five or more times per week, had half the odds of abusing tobacco, marijuana or alcohol. That was true for girls regardless of their race or the income status of their families. The study did not look at how many were still eating regular family meals.
The growing body of research around family meals has helped spark a movement to protect it from the demands on too-busy families. Families in some communities are trying to persuade schools to end after-school activities by 6 p.m. so children can be home in time for dinner, said Barbara Carlson, head of Putting Families First, a Wayzata organization that promotes family togetherness.
She said a group of parents in Apple Valley organized a push to stop athletic practices and other events on Sunday. Carver County parents organized a campaign called ETC (Eat, Talk, Connect) and signed pledges to eat three meals a week together, she said.
"I tell parents that they have to band together and say 'we don't want to meet over dinner hour,' " she said.
Walsh said that his organization started a community health and fitness program in Lakeville and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, called SWITCH designed to see if it would help families cut down on screen time, and lead healthier lives. A total of 1,300 families received regular packets of information suggesting activities, recipes and other tips. Families reported that they were most pleased with the information that helped them plan healthy meals and eat together, Walsh said.
Eisenberg said that her research on family meal times has sparked a big response, both among the public and other researchers.
"Everybody wants to talk about it," she said, "It's such a practical, human thing -- to have family meals."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394