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David Baxter

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Guess Who?s Coming to Dinner: Your Teen
October 17, 2007

Believe it or not, your teen really does want to have dinner with you.
After my recent column in Science Times about the importance of the family meal to a child?s well-being, several parents told me that planning dinner with teenagers is easier said than done. High school students often are busy with school, sports, friends and homework, and they often have cars and more freedom to come and go as they wish.

But science suggests that parents of teens should keep trying to sit down for that family meal. When a Minnesota study called Project EAT asked teens about their eating habits, a surprising 79 percent said they enjoyed sharing meals with their family. ?Parents think they are not going to want to be there, but in research, we found that teenagers report that they like to eat with their families,?? said nutritionist Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of the University of Minnesota, who led the study.

Despite her research, Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was surprised when her own son was interviewed by a local television station about the family?s regular Friday night meal. A senior in high school at the time, he told the reporter, ?I like that my parents expect me to be home, because it makes me feel important.??
It?s true that both teens and parents find it tough to schedule a family meal as kids get older. In an April 2006 report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the Minnesota researchers found that nearly 80 percent of seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders sat down with their parents three or more times a week. But once the kids hit sophomore year in high school, that figure fell to just 62 percent.

Even so, the older high school students still said they valued the time with their families, although 58 percent also believed that conflicting schedules made it hard to eat together. More than 60 percent said dinner was about more than food ? it was the time everyone in the family talked. The same number said they weren?t expected to follow rules at mealtime, suggesting that family meals were relaxed and casual, and that discipline was less important than togetherness.

Numerous studies show that kids who regularly sit down to family meals are better nourished and get better grades, and they are less likely to smoke, drink, use marijuana, get into fights or initiate sexual activity. The good news for busy families is that these findings generally hold true whether or not both parents are present at the dinner table.

The data also suggest that one of the best ways to a teen?s heart is through his or her stomach, said Dr. Neumark-Sztainer. Adolescents generally have voracious appetites, and interest in dining with parents increases if he or she likes what?s on the menu. ?Teenagers like to get family meals,? she said, ?because they like to get good food.?
 

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