Food for Thought: Does Family Dinner Really Matter?

December 22, 2022

Food For Thought

Around the end of each year, something crosses our inboxes or social media feeds with a headline about the benefits of family dinners. Could something so simple really play that big of a role in health outcomes or is this just another marketing scheme cooked up to sell canned cranberry sauce that no one eats any other time of year? In this blog, we’ll investigate this more as we discuss the history and significance behind meals together and PEER review a CASA Columbia White Paper on the research behind “The Importance of Family Dinners” that was published in 2012 but may still hold gravitational relevance a decade later!

Cooking Up Communion 

As the holiday season swoops in, many are gifted with the opportunity to gather with family for a celebratory dinner. Amid what can be a calming or chaotic feast, have you ever stopped to wonder when this all began? I don’t mean when did your family decide to move dinner from grandma’s house just down the street to your cousin’s place out in the suburbs, or to invite that one crazy uncle that leaves his dentures out on the family table. When did we, as humans, start the tradition of family meals? Perhaps understanding the history of eating together can provide context to how this might be beneficial for families. Don’t worry – I knew both of your hands would be full with a delicious dish going into the oven right now, so I investigated this more for you in advance.  

While you set your timers, I’ll set the scene back to almost 3 million years ago when it’s estimated that cooking first began. According to Harvard University’s primatologist, Richard Wrangham, cooked meals played an essential role in shaping human evolution. Dr. Wrangham notes in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, that because of primitive threats in the environment, early humans that cooked depended on several individuals to carry out specific tasks necessary to meal preparation (hunting, gathering, fire making, guarding, and cooking).1 Thus, social dining began.  

Cooking and dining then evolved for millions of years into what is seen today in all cultures as a special part of history, rituals, or one of the various ways that we celebrate together. Artifacts of pots and utensils from ancient civilizations show the presence of dining throughout time and numerous literary references to communion (from Latin prefix “com” meaning with/together, and adjective “mensalis” meaning the table 2) document the momentous act of coming together for a meal. Communion has shaped cities and transportation through trades of porcelain and spices, and it influenced early architecture with the incorporation of banquet halls and modern homes with dining rooms and family tables. Even now, fast-paced negotiations and billion-dollar agreements largely occur alongside colleagues seated together at the table. From scenes in Macbeth to Christmas at your in-laws, one thing you can count on at every table is significance.  

But the significance that dining together has on society is different from the impact it has on an individual, especially on the modern teenager, right?… or is it?

Sound Evidence or Grasping at Straws?  

Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University were hungry to find out more. They spent 18 years conducting annual surveys and assessing data from teens across the nation to find out how family dinner impacts youth. Scientists conducted phone interviews with youth ages 12-17 to collect self-reported information on family dynamics, family dinner frequency, and substance use.3 In short, they found that frequent family dinners (more than 3x per week) significantly reduced the likelihood of teen substance use.3 Their white paper publication, “The Importance of Family Dinners VIII” was released in 2012 and has been shaping research on the potential health benefits ever since. 

A Lot to Swallow: Breaking Down the Data into 3 Quick Facts 

-For the decade leading up to this report (2002-2012), the percentage of teens in America that reported having dinner with their families at least 5 times per week remained at about 57%.3 

-Those that reported having fewer family meals together were 3 times more likely to report approval of teen marijuana use for their age and 3.5 times more likely to report approval of teens getting drunk.3  

-Those that reported having 0-2 family dinners per week were 5 times more likely to say that their parents knew very little or nothing about what was really going on in their lives.3 Subsequently, teens that reported their parents knowing very little or nothing were 8% more likely to report marijuana use and 16% more likely to report alcohol use.3

PEERing Deeper Into the Methods   

Because this is a cross-sectional study rather than a longitudinal study where participants are followed throughout time and reassessed, the findings are limited to relational claims rather than causal ones. This means that just due to the nature of the study, researchers can’t prove that having or not having family dinner officially causes underage substance use. They can, however, show the positive association between family dinners and a lack of teen substance use through specific methods to achieve internal or external validity.4

Statistical comparisons were done to account for factors that would have impacted the validity of their results. Factors like this include that the survey was only offered in English and some households didn’t have or didn’t answer phones. Researchers accounted for this variability in representativeness and weighted their variables by an average of approximately 2%, which didn’t significantly change what they found.3 The methods were sound, and the reporting transparency was stellar! (Internal validity achieved!)

You Are What You Eat Together 

While it’s pretty apparent that not using substances is healthy for teens, we thought it would be helpful to point out the additional recent research that stemmed from the conclusions of Columbia, 2012 that has shown even more benefits of families frequently dining together. An abundance of evidence shows the connections between family dinners and teen improvement in academic performance, self-esteem, and resilience, accompanied by lowered risks of developing anxiety, eating disorders, and other chronic health ailments like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.5 Families that eat together are also more likely to consume more fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and micronutrients in their meals.5 One study of 5,000 Minnesota teens even linked regular family dinners with lower reported rates of depression and suicidality.6  

Setting the Scene or the Table?

Now none of this means that if you’re a single parent that works nights or a grandparent that hates to cook that your teens are doomed, though! The common factor that is seen across all of the studies is caregiver engagement. Routinely fostering conversations with your family, being involved in their lives, setting positive examples, and discussing expectations is critical for youth wellness. Eating, talking, and laughing together is just one way to make preventing substance use disorder a piece of cake….. or you can invite your crazy uncle over for a holiday dinner 3 times a week – the choice is yours! Either way, we wish you all the warmest of meals and the happiest of holidays. Thank you for reading “The PEER Review.” 

Sources Cited

1. Ali, A. December 2, 2019. “How Eating Together Made Us Human.” Nymble. 2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Commensal.” 3. CASAColumbia. 2012. “The Importance of Family Dinners VIII.” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Columbia. Accessed from 4. Cuncic, A. October 17, 2022. “Internal Validity vs External Validity in Research.” VeryWell Mind. DotDash Meredith Publishing. 5. Fishel, A. Jan. 09, 2015. “Science Says: Eat With Your Kids.” The Conversation. 6. Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158(8):792–796. doi:10.1001/archpedi.158.8.792.

If you or someone you know could benefit from the resources offered by PEER Services, please reach out to us at

<< Read Blog 1: Introducing “The PEER Review” Read Blog 3: Dry January >>