Adolescents who eat regular meals with their family do better in school than their middle- and high-school peers, and are significantly less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. They also are less likely to be depressed or suicidal, according to a new study.

University of Minnesota researchers found that the more family meals youths eat in a week, the less likely they were to have these problems.

“Eating family meals may enhance the health and well-being of adolescents,” says the study, which is published in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Previous studies have shown advantages to family meals such as eating healthier foods, providing family identity and fostering communication. The new study, the authors say, is the first to explore whether the act of eating together actually causes those benefits or if family meals simply act as a “proxy measure” for family connectedness.

The researchers found benefits “above and beyond” a general sense of connectedness to family members, according to the study.

Possible explanations include that eating together reflects a greater proportion of supervised time, and thereby less opportunity to engage in behaviors that occur when a parent is not present. The family meal might also provide an informal “check-in” time for parents to assess the emotional health of their children. Family mealtimes may also mean that children spend less time away from home, where they can be influenced by negative peer pressure.

The authors recognize that many families have no choice to be together at home at mealtimes, such as those with late-night work schedules. But for many, they say, the lack of family meal time simply means parents and youth give other optional activities priority over eating together.

The average family eats together about four times a week, according to the Institute of Food Technologists.

A government brochure offers several tips to promote eating together.

Too busy? Start with one or two meals a week, plan ahead, try weekends or breakfast or have the family eat together even if someone has to miss.

No time to cook? It doesn’t have to be hot or fancy, and you can involve kids in meal preparation.

The brochure suggests making a no-TV rule at mealtime, and unplugging the phone and letting the answering machine take calls.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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