Saving the World One Teen at a Time - Column on Parenting Tweens and Teens

Food for Thought.

by Abby Margolis Newman



I love the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times with a passion. I look forward to reading it every week, and I save it for last, like dessert. First, I read the news section, which habitually makes me feel helpless and depressed. Then I move on to the Week in Review, a summary of news from the past week (obviously) plus editorials--and I adore Frank Rich's columns with an intensity bordering on sick, according to my husband (if Frank Rich is on vacation, I sink into a deep funk, only to be roused by the Styles section.)


The Styles section is sometimes referred to as the Women's Sports section (yes, sexist), because it is sort of like a print version of a chick flick. It regularly includes voyeuristic articles about the rich and snobbish in New York: the competitive parents who buy $1200 strollers for their daily trips to Zabar's; who are rejected by East Side co-op boards because they're not quite rich enough; who can't sell their $5.5 million homes in the Hamptons in this depressed real estate market; who scratch and claw and bribe their way into Manhattan's most elite preschools. It's hilarious and fun. And then, of course, there are the Weddings pages, which I still read avidly even though most of my college classmates are way too old to be getting married--at least for the first time.


That's why this past Sunday's Styles section was so distressing to me: the featured story on the front page was entitled, "The Guilt Trip Casserole," and frankly, it was too close for comfort. Instead of taking sneaky pleasure in the trials and tribulations of wealthy and whiny New Yorkers, this piece was a direct punch in the gut, to me. As a friend of mine put it, instead of being a guilty pleasure, this week the Styles section just made me feel guilty.


We've all heard about the studies saying that families who sit down to dinner together raise kids who are more well-adjusted, do better in school, are less depressed, less likely to be overweight, etc. But according to this Times article, the latest study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) also shows that "teenagers who eat with their families less than three times a week are more likely to turn to alcohol, tobacco and drugs than those who dine with their families five times a week."


FIVE TIMES A WEEK?! Wait, let me rephrase that: THREE TIMES A WEEK?!


I'm a mom of three boys: two teenagers (ages 16 and 14) and one 10-year-old who is becoming a teen prematurely (more on that in a future column). My husband is a CFO who, although he works 15 minutes from our home, is gone each weekday from about 7:30 a.m. until at least 7:30 p.m. The boys are at three different schools and are involved in sports and theatrical productions. This situation, needless to say, is not conducive to cozy family dinners during the week. Frankly, we're lucky if we even get one sit-down dinner per week—and I mean at the table, not on the family room couch while watching "The Simpsons" (more on that phenomenon later, too).


I just posted on about how I get a bit tired of all the guilt being placed on parents because we are not doing things the way they used to be done. I feel like we can't win. I did not sit down to dinner with my parents very often and I am functioning adult who has never done drugs, I am not an alchoholic or overweight.


Even after my parent's divorce, my family ate dinner together (minus one parent). It seemed like a non-negotiable. BUT, we didn't do as much stuff after school. We had some activities, but they were done by dinner.

My husband and I both work. I've stopped feeling guilty about take-out. If we have to, we have to and I'm just glad to see my family sit for the 45 minutes we have until bath/tooth brushing/story/adult chores/shower collapse in bed time.

I think keeping a family on together (not talking about divorce) and on track should be a celebration - not just dinner together.


I am the mom/stepmom in a blended family of five teenagers in five different schools. My husband travels frequently, as much as 3-4 days a week and the kids and I still manage to have dinner together most nights. We may not always eat at the table, sometimes it is a buffet and we watch the baseball game together, but quite frankly, it is really not that hard. How do I accomplish this feat? I get the kids to help. They set the table, make the salad and sometimes, they actually cook the meal. They go to the store, buy the ingredients, look up a recipe on the Internet and make dinner. They even do the dishes. That's what I did when I was a kid. My mother worked full time with five kids and from the time I was 11 I always cooked dinner. She would call me from work and tell me what to do. I have to say the dinner hour now with five teenagers is much easier than with a cranky baby or active toddler. Last night I made lasagna for dinner. With no-boil noodles, it took me 10 minutes to prepare. We didn't eat until 8PM, but we had dinner together as a family.


I am divorced and have two teens, one who's active in sports, another who works and will be going to COM in January. During the weeks they're with me, we eat together almost every night (on the weekends? Forget it!) And, they like it — mostly because I like to cook and now, they cook with me (well, sometimes).

I always limited my kids' activities — if they did sports, then forget about music, etc. I didn't want to drive them crazy ... or me, either.

To me, it's a natural way to stay connected to my kids. They love it when I'm watching on the sidelines or sitting in the audience, but enjoying a "Slow Food" experience, home cooked, is just as essential ... maybe more.


I'm not sure how my parents did it, but in our family of five kids, we had dinner together every night, all the way through high school (this is 80s and 90s). And we were all in band, orchestra, cub scouts, etc. Mom would shift the time of dinner to accommodate rehearsals and concerts as necessary, but we had to get permission to miss dinner. I think maybe the way this worked was that (1) my mom worked part-time and only had one or two outside activities for herself each week; (2) they decided that dinner took priority over extra-curriculars, so we couldn't participate in activities that regularly interfered with dinner; and (3) once the habit was set, it became easier to maintain (like any habit--the hardest part is getting in the habit in the first place). My parents had plenty of other shortcomings, and I can't say that we're all that well-adjusted, and 2 of us struggled mightily with weight issues... BUT none of us smoke or are on drugs! Believe me, I am in awe, because all I've got is 1 toddler, and we can't manage family dinner more than 2 or 3 times a week.


You seriously need a survey to find out how many families with 2 plus teens and sit down for family meals at all. Would be very curious, and then for those who say they make it 3 times a week, HOW?