How often does your family have dinner together?

That simple question often evokes an answer of, "Ummmmmm......"

What used to be the most basic of activities has become increasingly difficult to schedule in today's busy world. But bringing back the time-honored practice of "breaking bread" with your own family could be the single greatest step you take toward saving your family from all kinds of ills.

For more than a decade, the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has been studying the tremendous impact that family meals have on children. Their research repeatedly shows how children suffer when they don't spend regular, casual time with their parents gathered around the dinner table. Consider this summary of their findings:

"Compared with teens who frequently had dinner with their families (five nights or more per week) those who had dinner with their families only two nights per week or less were twice as likely to be involved in substance abuse. They were 2.5 times as likely to drink alcohol, and nearly three times as likely to try marijuana."

Dining together makes a huge difference in general family relationships too. Children from families who don't have frequent meals together are more than twice as likely to say that the family has strained or tense relationships. And, sadly, they often don't feel as if their parents are very interested in their lives.

There's no reason to wonder if lonely meals lead to strained relationships or vice versa - find out by making togetherness a priority. " Just do it." It might be a worn-out phrase, but as the parent, you need to determine in your heart to make family dinners happen.

And, although they won't tell you, your teens want you to make it a priority. Really.

The pop culture constantly tells parents the pernicious lie that teenagers don't want them around. But teenagers say something very different. CASA's research, for instance, reveals: "When asked whether they prefer to have dinner with their families or to eat alone, 84 percent of teens surveyed say they prefer to have dinner with their families, compared to 13 percent who say they prefer to eat dinner alone (three percent responded 'don't know' or gave no response)."

Yet, statistics show that as teens grow older they are less likely to eat with their parents. My guess is that it's because mom and dad often feel too overwhelmed to take the initiative to bring them around the table, or have bought the lie that older children don't need family time.

The truth is that both parents and children experience more joy and satisfaction in life in general when we are part of a strong family unit. One study conducted by The Associated Press and (believe it or not) MTV, found that spending time with family is the number one activity that young adult children between 13 and 24 said makes them happy. 

So what are you waiting for?

As a mother of three, I know how difficult it can be to manage schedules -- especially of three young adults all running in different directions and wanting to spend time with their friends in the summer months. But several years ago when my children first hit their teen years and I discovered the fierce competition for their time, I forged ahead, designating nights each week when we would absolutely eat together. And I found that adding one simple sentence to the mandate opened up a whole new world of fun: "Your friends are welcome to join us." This firm but inclusive directive made for many now-treasured evenings when we bond with our children and their friends. The time, laughs and discussions have a powerful impact on all of us.

It makes sense when you think about it. When your children know that your being with them is a priority for you, they feel valued and loved. They also begin to understand that the sacred bonds of family will sustain them through any challenge life throws at them.

If you're feeling at a loss on how to get and keep those kids gathered around your table, CASA offers great ideas on how to make meals interactive and enjoyable. Their fantastic website www.casafamilyday.org was designed with your family in mind. As CASA says, "Dinner Makes a Difference."

July 13, 2009


Rebecca Hagelin is a public speaker on the family and culture and the author of the new best seller, 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family. Visit her website at www.HowToSaveYourFamily.com. where you can sign up to receive her free e-newsletter containing the Culture Challenge of the Week and how to fight back. Hagelin is also senior communications fellow for The Heritage Foundation.