Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Teen Solution to Family Dinner

In preparing a presentation for high school educators recently, I had a "light bulb" moment. Teens are an untapped resource in the family dinner equation. When we think of family dinner, teenagers hardly even enter into the picture. This may be because they have busy schedules, just like their parents, or perhaps parents of teens have already given up on a family table! But the teenager years are a crucial time where family dinner can really help parents and older kids stay connected. Moreover, teens can help make dinner happen -- the Teen Solution to Family Dinner!

Real Benefits for Teens

Kids, teens and adults who have family dinner regularly report feeling more connected, happier and less stressed. This has a special resonance for teens. I was recently shocked and saddened to learn that 1 in 25 teens has attempted suicide and 1 in 8 has had some thoughts of suicide. Teen mood swings are typical, yet teen depression and other mental health problems are a very real threat that parents and educators need to be attuned to. Just the act of having a few meals together, at any time of day, can bring this crucial connection. Family dinner has been shown to be a positive behavioral therapy for teens with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, and other mental health issues.

Furthermore, teens actually like having dinner with their families, despite the stereotypes. They appreciate having a regular time with parents and they report eating more healthful foods with the family. As Tara Parker-Pope, reported in The New York Times Well Blog, a few years ago, even people working in the field can forget.
Despite her research, Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was surprised when her own son was interviewed by a local television station about the family’s regular Friday night meal. A senior in high school at the time, he told the reporter, “I like that my parents expect me to be home, because it makes me feel important.’’

Real Help from Teens

The number one complaint from parents about family dinner is the time it takes to put dinner on the table. The light bulb moment came when I read that one of teens' biggest frustrations was that parents did not let them help more in the kitchen! Clearly, this is a potential win-win for parents and teens. Depending on where you live, teens can help shop, prep for, and/or cook dinner for their families, in addition to the more traditional role of cleaning up. Even if it is just once or twice a week, letting your teen take charge of dinner could mean the difference between having dinner together or not. Actually taking responsibility for making the family meal can be a great way to bolster self-confidence and self-esteem. Teens hate doing "busy-work" and may actually be more willing to cook for the family (an important job) rather than taking out the garbage (easier, but a more menial task).

The teenage years are an excellent time to learn cooking as a real-life survival skill. Unlike grade school children, where cooking is solely "fun," teenagers will actually be cooking for themselves in just a few years. I cooked dinner for my family while my mom worked nights, and I think that's where my confidence in the kitchen came from. I cooked meals throughout college to save money and was often surprised that other people didn't know how to cook. Though I'm able to make much more sophisticated meals now, I started with serving my mom's pre-made crock-pot dinners and re-heating frozen vegetables.

As the mom of two teens, I know having your teen cook dinner might be a hard sell; it definitely depends on the personalities involved. You may even have to scale back your own expectations about what constitutes dinner. (In an article from last year, My Sons, the Sous-Chefs, a NYT writer humblebrags about her sons cooking full meals and manage to critique their technique at the same time!)

What do you think? Is it possible to have teens or tweens actually make family dinner? Would this help your family eat together more often?


  1. loving this! so clear and encouraging to begin the transition to self-sufficiency through pitching in towards an on-going family event!

  2. Thank you Sarah! You are definitely an inspiration on making the transition!

  3. Grace, this is such an excellent post! I really believe in giving teens responsibility in the kitchen, whether it's cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc. These are vital life skills and a chance to spend more time together (i.e. lure them out of their rooms!).

  4. Thanks Aviva! I remember you saying your older teens made family meals, at least occasionally. I'm trying to follow your example so my oldest has at least a few simple meals he can make when he leaves for college.

  5. What a great idea, Grace. My oldest is turning 9 this weekend so we'll soon have a pre-teen and he loves "big boy" responsibilities like cooking with me. He made us all lunch over the weekend and loves making breakfast for his little sister. I hope this never ends!

  6. LIke you said, Grace, it really does depend on both the availability and the "food personality" of your teen. My 17 year old is rarely around during the dinner prep hour. When she is around, she is not so confident in the kitchen. I need to leave her very detailed instructions to guide her help. My 15 year old, however, is more confident in the kitchen. Just last night she made the pasta side dish for our crock pot dinner while I was working. Unfortunately, she is not often around in the pre-dinner hour due to sports. I've involved all of my kids with me in the kitchen in some way since they were young, but it hasn't necessarily "taken" with all of them. I just trust that some day all the exposure will pay off for them.

  7. @Gina -- that's great! Definitely keep that boy in the kitchen!
    @DrCuneo -- We have a similar situation where my younger teen (now 14) very much wants to cook and has cooked a few meals under our guidance. I'm really hoping to help her expand her interest and skills. My oldest is more reluctant, but just a few months away from being on his own. I do hope all that exposure will pay off. None of my kids really like "overly processed" or fast food because they are so accustomed to what "real food" tastes like.

  8. Hello! I recently just started a youtube Korean food channel, EasyKoreanFood, where you can learn how to make fast & easy Korean food! It would mean the world to me if you could check it out because I'm just starting out! Thanks!


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