Purpose: To examine associations between family meal frequency and developmental assets and high-risk behaviors among a national sample of adolescents.
Methods: Anonymous surveys were distributed to 99,462 sixth to 12th grade students from public and alternative schools in 213 cities and 25 states across the United States. Logistic regression analyses tested differences in assets and high-risk behaviors by family dinner frequency.
Results: Consistent positive associations were found between the frequency of family dinners and all developmental assets, including both external (e.g., support, boundaries and expectations; odds ratio [OR] 2.1-3.7) and internal assets (e.g., commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity; OR 1.8-2.6); relationships were attenuated, but remained significant after adjusting for demographics and general family communication and support. Consistent inverse relationships were found between the frequency of family dinners and all high-risk behaviors measured (i.e., substance use, sexual activity, depression/suicide, antisocial behaviors, violence, school problems, binge eating/purging, and excessive weight loss; OR .36-.58), relationships were attenuated, but remained significant after adjusting for demographics and family factors.
Conclusions: The findings of the present study suggest that the frequency of family dinner is an external developmental asset or protective factor that may curtail high-risk behaviors among youth. Creative and realistic strategies for enhancing and supporting family meals, given the context within which different families live, should be explored to promote healthy adolescent development. Family rituals such as regular mealtimes may ease the stress of daily living in the fast-paced families of today's society.