The Finding Teens who regularly eat meals with their families are less likely to do poorly in school, smoke cigarettes or use alcohol or tobacco, suffer depression or consider suicide than those who don't, according to a study in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The Study Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health surveyed 4,746 teenagers about their behavior and mealtime habits. Marla Eisenberg and her colleagues found that the more meals teens ate with their parents, the healthier generally were their activities. For instance, girls who said they ate seven or more meals with their families each week were almost half as likely to report having attempted suicide as girls who said they ate none. (Of the 2,358 girls in the study, 12.7 percent reported having attempted suicide.)

The Caveat There's no proof, alas, that eating dinner en famille actually prevents unhealthy teen behavior -- at least not yet, Eisenberg explains: The study merely establishes an association between meal habits and teen behaviors, not necessarily a cause-and-effect link. Eisenberg -- who suspects such a link exists -- is analyzing data from a five-year follow-up study to try to clarify the matter further.

The Meal Deal Eisenberg said "in situations in which families are giving priorities to other things, this is a reminder that family meals are important." She noted, "The impetus has to come from the parents. They need to say, 'We're going to carve out a chunk of family time. We're going to be here, and we expect you to be here.' "

Eisenberg says after-school activities should be scheduled to accommodate family meals. "A lot of things that kids are involved in after school are very good things. . . . But they should be scheduled around meal times," she said.

Each additional meal -- whether home-cooked or takeout -- eaten with the family "helps a little bit," she said. "The important piece seems to be sitting down together as a family and sharing a meal."

-- Jennifer Huget