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How Family Dinners Help

The Hood Foundation supports research on why eating together decreases teenagers’ risky behavior

We’ve all heard that family dinners are important. Studies have shown that teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families are less likely to do drugs, smoke, or engage in risky sexual behavior. But why is that?

With the help of a $150,000 grant from the Charles H. Hood Foundation, Margie Skeer, an assistant professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, is trying to find out how such a seemingly simple ritual as eating together can have far-reaching effects.

Until now, research on family dinners has been focused on how often families eat together. By measuring only the frequency of family dinners, the studies ignore other aspects, such as how long the meal lasts or the quality of conversation. Skeer, who also teaches in the master’s program in health communication, is hoping to fill this gap in the literature by determining what about a family meal decreases risky behavior in adolescents.

“The studies are currently limited by the fact that we don’t know if meals are a proxy for something else,” she says.

Working with collaborators from Tufts and the University of Michigan, Skeer developed a measure called the Family Dinner Index (FDI) that aims to capture why meals may have a protective effect on teens. The FDI is a survey for both parents and children that asks about factors such as feelings associated with meals, expectations around meals, and who was at the meal, as well as the frequency of meals. The grant from the Hood Foundation will allow Skeer to test the FDI on groups of parents and children to evaluate its reliability and validity.

The Hood Foundation’s mission is to advance child health by supporting researchers early in their careers. Robert Sege, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician and director of the foundation’s Child Health Research Awards, commented, “Dr. Skeer has noted that meals are more than nutrition—they are part of a growing child’s social connection and moral education. Her work will develop measures that will help researchers (and parents) untangle some of the many factors associated with healthy development.”

Skeer hopes that the FDI can eventually be used in research studies that track and evaluate risk and weight-related outcomes among youth over time.

“It’s not a slam dunk that meals are the answer,” she cautions. “But this potentially protective effect is a really important aspect to study.”