Letter to the Editor

Meals matter

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The incidence of substance abuse among United States teenagers is on the rise. According to the most recent Iowa Youth Survey, 63 percent of current 11th graders have tried alcohol and 36 percent have used in the last 30 days. The survey says 27 percent of the current 11th graders have tried marijuana and 13 percent have used in the last 30 days.

Parents often ask what can be done to reduce their teenager's likelihood to abuse drugs or alcohol. Although there is no silver bullet to prevent drug and alcohol abuse, parental involvement does more to reduce teens' substance abuse risk than almost any other. One way to remain involved is simply by frequently sharing meals together as a family.

According to national studies, more than 80 percent of parents consider eating dinner with their children very important. However, less than 50 percent of parents and children actually sit down together for meals on a daily basis. Unfortunately, these percentages decrease as children get older. The decrease in family dining has evolved over time as families are pressured to divide and conquer the seemingly endless roster of lessons, sports and committee meetings.

Today's active lifestyle and the high incidence of two-income families and single-parent households make it easy to understand why family meals may fall by the wayside. And yet, family meals are not only a time for strengthening family ties and keeping track of you children's lives, they can actually lead to better physical and mental health for your children. Parents who sit down to dinner five or more times a week with their children are parents who are very involved in their kids' lives. Those families that make family togetherness a priority are achieving a level of involvement in their children's lives that has a healthy impact on their kids.

Shared meals nourish mind, body and soul. Families experience many benefits:

Better communication -- sharing daily happenings getting to know more about each other, creating an opportunity to plan family activities and discuss family needs.

Stronger family bonds -- increasing each family member's sense of belonging and making it easier to deal with problems that arise.

Improved nutrition -- generally consuming higher amounts of important nutrients, less overall fat and eating more fruits and vegetables.

School achievement -- children who frequently eat meals with their families tend to do better at school.

Lowered risk for substance abuse -- half as likely to try tobacco or marijuana and one third less likely to try alcohol. Parents that make it a habit to have frequent dinners with their children are parents who take the actions necessary to reduce their children's risk of using illegal substances.

Ten tips to make mealtime family time

#1 Make family mealtime a priority. It's not easy, but it's well worth.

#2 Eating at least five meals together each week is the goal.

#3 Jump-start your conversation by asking questions like, "What did you like most about your day?"

#4 Involve your kids in the planning, preparation and serving of the meal.

#5 Eliminate distractions, such as the television, computer, video games and cell phone.

#6 Slow down and savor the food, enjoy healthier eating habits.

#7 Conversations should be about neutral topics, ideas and feelings. #8 Be non-confrontational and stress-free, this is not a time for discipline or arguing about problems at work or school.

#9 Use mealtime as a time to reconnect with your family, pass on family traditions.

#10 Make mealtime family time while eating meals out too.