Regular family meals have been touted as a preventive for all kinds of problems, including teen pregnancy, smoking and obesity. Recent research in the Journal of Marriage and Family, however, found that most of the benefits of regular family meals were not actually the result of eating together. Rather, social scientists Kelly Musick and Ann Meier found, they stemmed from other factors in the family environment that facilitated regular meals, such as sufficient income, strong family relationships and authoritative parents.
Instead of fixating on family dinners, Musick and Meier suggest, moms and dads should focus on building relationships with children at any opportunity, such as while driving in the car. A 2010 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University noted that teens were more likely to talk to their parents in the car than almost any other place. Being involved in a kid's life is extremely beneficial, scientists say, even if it doesn't happen over placemats.