"Family meals are the strongest factor that we've come across in any activity that families do," said William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "It really tops them all as a predictor and contributor of a wide range of positive behavior."
Compared to teens who ate with their families five to seven times a week, teenagers who had fewer than three family dinners a week were almost four times more likely to try tobacco, more than twice as likely to use alcohol and 2.5 times more likely to use marijuana, according to new information released by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Doherty, who did not take part in the study, said family dinners conveyed a sense of belonging, gave teenagers security and stability, and provided them and their parents an opportunity to communicate.
"So much of the rest of the day, kids, especially teens, are spending with their peers by themselves," Doherty said. "They have a chance for talking and connecting at family dinners."
Best Part of the Meal: Family Time
Three-quarters of teens who reported having dinner with their family at least once a week said the interaction and the togetherness were the best part of the meal. Those who spent seven hours or less per week with their parents were twice as likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to say they expected to try drugs, compared with teens who spent 21 hours or more per week with their parents.
Previous studies have shown that family meals have many benefits.
Female adolescents who ate family dinners at least most days were less likely to initiate purging, binge-eating and frequent dieting. Children who ate breakfast with their families at least four times a week were more likely to consume fruit and vegetables.
And findings have revealed that by making family dinner a priority, families with teenagers might enhance child-parent communication and ultimately promote healthy adolescent development.
Doherty had this advice for parents and caregivers who have given up on family dinners: Start on a Sunday night.
"I recommend starting one a week. The more you do it, the better," he said. "One is better than zero. It's quality, not quantity."
Doherty urged families to turn the television off, put all cellphones away and for parents not to use the sit-down meal as an opportunity to nag or scold.
"Make it a connecting meal. It's the quality of the connecting. Just try to have a good conversation," he said. "Don't grill them about their grades."