Past studies have shown that family meals provide many benefits, including offering a venue for parents to communicate with their adolescents about their daily activities, as well as monitor their moods and whereabouts.
In the new study, researchers noted benefits in families that ate five or more meals together each week, and found that about 60 percent of the participants did so.
"Sixty percent having regular family meals is about what we would expect for middle school students," said lead author Marla Eisenberg of the Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. "The percentage is lower among high school students, who are more likely to have afterschool activities or more freedom to spend time away from home."
The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Eisenberg and her colleagues examined data from 806 Minnesota adolescents (45.4 percent boys and 54.6 percent girls). They first surveyed the youth in school in 1998-1999 (at about age 13) and asked how often in the past week their family ate together and about their use of marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol. They followed up with a second survey by mail five years later.
In the second survey, girls who had reported five or more family meals per week had significantly less substance use than did the females who did not have regular family meals. The girls who had regular meals had about half the odds of substance use.
However, boys showed no significant difference in substance use between those who had regular family meals and those who did not.
"Unfortunately we don't really know why we see this benefit for girls and not boys," Eisenberg said. "There is some evidence that girls and boys communicate and interact differently with their families, so it's possible that the conversations about behavioral expectations or the subtle 'checking in' that can happen during shared meals might be understood differently by girls and boys."
Jeanie Alter is program manager and lead evaluator of the Indiana Prevention Resource Center at Indiana University's School or Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. She agreed that regular family meals could benefit teens.
"Some of the factors related to substance use in teens are linked to family conflict," Alter said. "So, if you have a kid that is sharing that much time with his or her family, it would suggest they have better family relationships, more protective factors and fewer risk factors."
Eisenberg said that despite the "many challenges of bringing a family together every day, we would encourage parents to make family meals part of their routine as often as they can."