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Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Preventing Substance Abuse One Meal at a Time

With the holidays approaching many families will have dinner to celebrate. The holiday season is not the only time for families to share a meal. The three most consistent parts of everyone’s day; breakfast, lunch and dinner provide an opportunity for families to get together and share. Did you know that these are also some of the most important public health opportunities we can take advantage of today?  Studies have shown that youth who eat meals with their families do better in school, are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, have less depression and lower levels of obesity.

Why are family dinners a protective factor?  They provide opportunities for social interaction, give parents a chance to set goals and boundaries for youth, they provide opportunities for parents to know what is going on with youth and it gives youth the opportunity to share information about their day, their goals and their concerns. Parents are able to model positive social behaviors and healthy eating patterns which can help with all aspects of health.

When you look at the social development model, you can see this in action.

Source: Indiana Prevention Resource Center

Many think that to prevent substance abuse you have to do fancy programs and spend a lot of money.  But it can be as simple as Taco Tuesday, Leftover Wednesday or Pancake Saturday.

Many will say our schedules are too busy for family dinners.  Often work, sports, and other activities put the family on a different schedule, but if you look at your schedules, you will find common times that you can get together.  Maybe it’s sitting down to hot chocolate and popcorn in the evening or making breakfast together on the weekend. Everyone has to eat…so find a way to do it together.  Meal and snack times provide an excellent opportunity for everyone to sit down together and talk without TV, cell phones, computers or other distractions and talk to each other about your day, what you are thinking about or what you are concerned about.

Keys to Family Dinner Successes

Turn off all screens.  No TV, phones, computers, etc.

Make it mandatory.  Set a schedule, same time, same day and no one can miss. Like work or school, you need to be there. Everyone may grumble at first, but once it becomes a habit everyone will start to look forward to it.

Share the meal planning.  Let the family choose what you will eat.  Cooking together is great fun, but even a shared takeout pizza can turn into a moment.

Everyone has a chance to share.  Everyone shares one good thing that happened that day.  If you need help with topics for conversation, create a topic box.  Topics can include: favorite family memory, where to go on the next vacation, what will the weekend plans be, or what do you want to be doing in 5-10 or even 20 years. The topics just give you a place to start; let the conversation take its own turn.

Avoid using family dinner time to bring up problems with one person in the family. If you want to talk about not doing homework or a household chore, talk to the person directly and privately, if you do it at the meal time, it can often turn into a battle and takes away from the positive aspects.  If can lead to everyone feeling like this is the time for pointing out failures instead of a chance to share with each other…this can lead to dreading and trying to avoid the meal.

Start slow; if dinner (or any meal or snack) is not a regular activity, start with once a week.  Then you can move to more often.  If you can get to once a day or even 4-5 times per week, you will have provided great opportunities for bonding and sharing.

Family dinners are an easy and no cost way for everyone to share and enjoy one another’s company.  Not only does it promote eating at home, which is healthy and economical, it can provide a family with ways to promote healthy, positive behaviors.


By Mary Lay,   12/1/2010