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Eat to Live: Family dinners = safer teens



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Sep 14, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- I have a fantasy about family suppers. We're all at the table, which has been cheerfully laid by the teenager, chatting merrily about the day's events or the political state of the universe.

In reality, the teenager asks what the going rate is for laying the table, whereupon I propose submitting my check for preparing the meal. As long as the banter does not touch a lengthy list of subjects made taboo by the teen, communication of sorts staggers on until dinner's end, more a series of probes with minimum answers than conversation.

Still, we persevere in our conviction that family dinners are important, and this week, it seems our endeavors may not only be valuable, but actually valued by the teen.

A survey just released by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows the more often teenagers eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs. It also reveals most teenagers who eat dinner with their families infrequently, far from relishing their independence, wish they had family dinners more often.

Around the family table, through questions as banal as "How was school today?" children gauge their parents' interest in them. If their interpretation of parents' absence at dinner is that a father or a mother has no time for them, then they are more vulnerable to the attention-grabbing attractions of nicotine, alcohol and illegal substances.

"America's drug problem is not going to be solved in court rooms, legislative hearing rooms or classrooms, by judges, politicians or teachers," said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., CASA's chairman and president. "It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables -- by parents and families."

The survey results, published in time for the fifth annual "Family Day -- A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children," on Sept. 26, were part of CASA's tenth annual back-to-school survey.

Teens who have two or fewer family dinners per week are three times more likely to try marijuana than teens who have five or more family dinners per week. They are two-and-a-half times more likely to smoke cigarettes and over one-and-a-half times more likely to drink alcohol.

The news isn't all bad. Since the 1998 CASA survey, 58 percent of teenagers say they have dinner with their family at least five times a week, a substantial increase, but one-quarter of teens and half of parents wished they had more frequent family dinners. Among families having fewer than three family dinners a week, half of the teens and almost all of the parents wished they could have more.

For dinners to make a difference, however, they must involve interaction. Households with fewer family dinners are more likely to have the television on while they eat, to talk little and to keep the dinners short.

Teenagers from households where family dinners are a regular event, with conversation and without TV, say they think their parents are very or fairly proud of them and they can approach one or the other with a serious problem, unlike those with fewer and pre-occupied family dinners.

Long work days, long commutes home, and after-school activities all bite into family time and stand in the way of family dinners. It is easy, under the demands of outside activities, to leave the meal to delivery men or the microwave, but a little advance preparation could give family dinners a better chance of taking place.

An hour or two set aside on Sundays to prepare a dish that could tide the family through most of the week frees time at the end of each weekday for a proper family dinner. Here are two examples:

--A large ham does duty on Sunday, the first day, hot with a baked potato and a dish of peas.

--Monday, serve it cold with green salad and coleslaw.

--Tuesday, layer it in fine slices with thinly sliced potatoes, pour over a thin cheesy sauce pre-made over the weekend, then bake until bubbly.

--Wednesday, stock from boiling the bone during Tuesday's dinner is used to simmer a pilaf of cinnamon stick-flavored rice with shreds of the last of the ham, finely chopped onion, a handful of frozen peas and of raisins.

--Thursday, the remaining stock becomes a thick soup full of legumes or lentils and fresh vegetables.

--Friday, the family can go out to dinner.

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--Monday, a large batch of fresh tomato sauce covers a chicken breast.

--Tuesday, it covers pasta.

--Wednesday, it goes over a steamed cauliflower and under a layer of melted mozzarella.

--Thursday, mixed with cannellini beans, chunks of broccoli, carrot, potato and onion that have been softened in olive oil, it makes a vegetable stew -- or, it stuffs an herb omelet.

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Be creative with leftovers. Leftover fish pie becomes fish cakes. Leftover roast chicken makes an informal chicken curry. Stuff a squash with leftovers. However scrupulously we plan our meals, there always are leftovers. Don't throw them out, because they could mean the difference between meals with your children and meals they eat alone.

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UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright 2005 by United Press International.

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