Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Supper's On! Family Meals Help Teenagers

September 22, 1997

One casualty of modern life has been the demise of family meals. Why? Mothers are working. Schedules are harried and often don't match. Workdays are longer. The microwave is easy. Fast foods are available. Children's after school activities cut into the late afternoon. Constantly hungry teenagers eat when they’re hungry.

So is this any big deal? Yes, according to psychologists Blake Bowden of the Cincinnati Center for Developmental Disorders and Jennie Zeisz of DePaul University. In a study of 537 rural and semi-rural teens age 12-18 in northeastern Ohio, they found that "adjusted" teens had sit-down family meals an average of 5.4 days per week. "Non-adjusted" youth had family meals an average of 3.3 days per week.

Bowden and Zeisz used four factors to classify teens into "adjusted" and "non-adjusted" categories: 1) academic motivation, 2) use or non-use of substances, 3) positive or negative peer group influence, and 4) self reports of positive mood and hopefulness versus depression and defeat.

The number of days per week when family meals are served accurately predicted which teens would be adjusted or maladjusted 75 percent of the time. Hold on to your hats folks. Bowden and Zeisz found that family meals were a more powerful predictor of adjustment than whether a teen was a member of traditional married two-parent family or a non-traditional family arrangement. Now that is interesting!

Bowden and Zeisz cite previous research that showed that intergenerational alcoholism was highly correlated with fewer family mealtimes. Another study showed that students who did better in elementary school had more at-home meals with family members.

Why is a family meal so important? By itself, the family meal may not be that important. It may be another example of good parenting and fit an overall pattern of commitment, organization and nurturing. It is a visible manifestation of other things the family is doing well.

  • Food is important in the development of attachment. In some previous columns I have referred to how important food is to parent/child bonding in infancy, courtship, holidays, community celebration and to nurturing a marriage. The basic idea is that the good feelings and pleasure from eating are associated with the provider of the food.

Food is very important to our teen-age son. He depends on us for easy food access and preparation. His need for food - and lots of it - brings him to our table where we try to connect on other levels. Even with his desire for autonomy, he chooses not to pull too far away from the providers of his food.

  • Family meals are a sign of the parents' ability to be structured and organized enough to pull off a family meal in spite of the pressures to do otherwise.
  • A family meal represents commitment to family and nurturing children. It is a major sacrifice of energy, planning and preparation to have family meals. A commitment to family meals is a powerful indicator of a larger commitment to all aspects of parenting - love, acceptance, guidance, high expectations and consistency. It’s the total package that makes the difference.
  • A family meal offers an opportunity for communication, social support, coordination, instruction in values and awareness of each other's lives. Some families even pull off stimulating conversation - admittedly not at every meal - and consider it a highlight of their family life. Guests at meals broaden a child's perspective and expose them to other adult viewpoints.
  • A family meal fosters family and personal identity. This may be one of the few times when the family is together. Bowden and Zeisz mention several anthropological studies describing mealtime as a time when children and adolescents develop narratives to explain their lives.

Personally, I seldom hear my children or many other teenagers spontaneously talk about the significant milestones in their lives at family meals. At certain ages, talking about their lives with parents is not their long suit. If anybody is verbalizing a narrative, it is probably a parent.

I suppose, in some subtle way, a family meal is a part of family identity which in turn helps form personal identity. Whatever is going on, it doesn't happen at just one meal. That's why a pattern of family meals is important.

  • Family meals are a sign of harmony in relationships. Bowden raises the possibility that having a family meal with well-adjusted teens is a pleasant and rewarding experience. A meal with a struggling, moody teen is a turnoff. Maladjusted teens may influence whether their parents feel like fixing a family meal.

Constant quibbling at mealtime about manners and eating or confrontation on other matters spoils what could be a pleasant occasion. Many mothers are dismayed when their meal is ruined by unpleasantness at the dinner table.

In fact, constant conflict at family meals may actually be a detriment to family life. Conflict at mealtime probably is part of a larger pattern of family conflict that needs to be addressed away from the table.

Do you want an island of family belonging and serenity in the midst of a busy and stressful world, or better adjusted teenagers? Family meals could be your meal ticket to success.