Researchers have uncovered a surprising new way to help protect kids from depression, drugs and risky sex - get them to the dinner table regularly.
A report commissioned by the Families Commission has found that teenagers who sit down to a shared meal with their family most weeknights are less likely to take risks with drugs, cigarettes, sex and alcohol.
They're also less likely to have suicidal thoughts and they probably have a better relationship with their parents.
The family mealtime ritual is also likely to improve a teen's attitude to food, giving them better nutrition and lower rates of binge-eating and other food-related disorders.
The study, which uses national data collected from more than 9000 high school students, is the first of its kind in New Zealand.
- About one-third of teenagers share meals with their family seven or more times a week. This group got the greatest protection from risky behaviour, unhealthy foods and mental health issues.
- 40 per cent shared meals between three and six times a week.
- Nearly one quarter shared a meal with their family just twice a week or less. This group was the least protected.
The researchers said it was hard to know if the sit-down meals themselves were improving wellbeing, or whether homes that provided regular meals were also more likely to provide other support to protect children.
Either way however, "it appears that sharing meals together is one characteristic of a healthy family environment," lead author Jennifer Utter, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, said.