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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Family dinnertime with teens

Talking with Teens at the Dinner Table

Before I had kids, and later when my kids were still small, I feared the teen years. I envisioned my sweet, cuddling tots turning into rude, goth teens, hiding in their rooms with their earbuds plugged in.

Now, with two teens at home, I’m no longer afraid. Their reality is a thing of wonder to me. They’re not rude. Quiet at times, but not rude. I have to pull out their earbuds occasionally, but they don’t sulk behind closed doors. And they’re still quite cuddly—when they want to be. Given this, I can still be taken aback when they momentarily act like “real” teens, which happened last night at dinner.

Family dinnertime is important in my house. Even with our busy work, school, and sports schedules, eating dinner together is a challenge and a priority. Last night, I asked the kids  why  they  thought dinners together were so important. My middle child said with a snarky tone:

Because they keep us connected at the heart.

Her hands acted this out with fingers, first intertwined, and then in the shape of a heart. Eyes rolled. But then, thankfully, there came a smile.

The research that eating meals with family is good for kids’ health continues to grow:

  • Children who regularly eat the evening meal with their family are less likely to be overweight.
  • Teens who eat at least three meals a week with their family have decreased rates of obesity, unhealthy eating, and disordered eating.
  • Parents serve healthier options and spend more time talking about healthy eating when families eat together.
  • Frequent family meals decrease teens’ risk of depression and risk-taking behaviors, including unsafe sexual activity, and alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis use.

Where we eat, and the atmosphere of our meals, is also important:

  • Parents and teens both have lower body mass index (BMI) if they eat dinner in the kitchen or dining room.
  • Many health benefits of eating dinner together also happen when families enjoy breakfast together. This is great news, given how our busy lives make it hard to eat dinner as a family!
  • Meals with at least one adult present are associated with higher vegetable intake.
  • Many families who dine together have positive interpersonal interactions at mealtimes. They share information and express feelings and concern for each other. This warm experience is connected with a decreased rate of substance use in teens.

We need to eat with our kids for the sake of their  health. Dinners don’t have to be fancy or long, but the atmosphere around the table counts. We need to cultivate ways to make our dinnertime conversations meaningful, interesting, and thought-provoking. All of that can feel challenging!

Around my table, we talk about almost everything. Any topic is acceptable if brought up with good intention and true curiosity.  Politics, sex, religion? We’ve covered them all. We’ve played games. I’ve been accused of being a pain about their manners—causing giggles, anger, and tears.

Now, with so many sports teams, part-time jobs,  extracurricular  activities, and social engagements, we can’t dine together every night. But whoever is at home sits and talks. On Sundays, we all meet—even if other invitations have to be turned down. This  commitment has paid off through the years.

My eldest can be a bit quiet. I challenged him recently on this laconic nature, asking if he would talk to me when it really mattered. He stopped, looked at me, and said yes. I asked why? How could I be sure? He explained he knew I could handle talking about anything.  After all, we do just that on any given Sunday, around the table.

For more ideas about healthy meals for your family see our post:
10 Nutritional Soundbites

This article was originally published on Sept 7, 2017

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