Children in families that eat dinner together most nights each week are significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol. And one who reaches age 21 without doing so "is virtually certain never to do so," according to research just released by the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

"Parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., founder and chairman of the center, in a statement that accompanied the CASA Columbia report.

It said that compared to teens who have frequent dinners with family, defined as five to seven times a week, those who have dinner with family fewer than three times a week are almost four times more likely to smoke and nearly twice as likely to use alcohol. They are also 2.5 times more likely to use marijuana and four times as likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future.

"This year's study again demonstrates that the magic that happens at family dinners isn't the food on the table, but the conversations and family engagement around the table," Califano wrote. "When asked about the best part of family dinners, the most frequent answer from teens is the sharing, talking and interacting with family members; the second-most-frequent answer is sitting down or being together."

Dinner time is also a time for strengthening relationships between siblings, the report said. The annual study found that teens who believe their older siblings have tried an illegal drug are:

More than five-and-a-half times likelier to use tobacco

Almost three times likelier to use alcohol

Six-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana and

More than three times likelier to expect to try drugs to get high, including marijuana and prescription drugs that were not prescribed for them

A Washington Post blog by Jennifer LaRue Huget notes that with busy schedules, it's sometimes hard to get everyone together at dinner time. "The report suggests that it's the act of eating together, not the specific time of day, that matters," she said. "So eating breakfast together five or more times per week should work as well as getting together at dinner time."

The survey, now in its 17th year, was answered by 1,037 teens and 528 of their parents over the Internet and 1,006 teens by phone.

"This year, 58 percent of those surveyed reported eating dinner with their families five or more times per week, a number that's been remarkably consistent over the past decade," Huget noted.

And here's a bonus finding: teens who eat dinner with their families five or more times a week are 1.5 times as likely to report having a good relationship with their moms and twice as likely to report good relationships with their dads and siblings.

The Family Dinner Project offers a lot of information on how to make family dinners happen, clear down to suggesting some topics of conversation for those who really aren't used to the give and take of dinner time chatter. It calls itself a "start-up grassroots movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter."

And to the list of benefits of together mealtime, the project adds better grades, resilience and self-esteem and less teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. The project is a collaboration between several Harvard University researchers and 15 families.

4 comments on this story

Lots of people are touting dinner time as potent family time.

An article on the site by Doug Lederman and Sam Petulla notes that "The Campus Community Dinner Series going on at Southern Vermont College, started by its president, Karen Gross, "has no meager ambitions: it aims to strengthen local residents' appreciation for the value of family dinners (which, done right, have been shown to help students succeed in school and stay out of trouble); build the college's ties to its community; and contribute to the varied experiences that can improve college retention by building students' connections to their campuses.

And ABC News offered some simple tips for kick-starting your family meal routine: Turn off the TV. Have kids help plan and cook the meal. And for a conversation starter, have everyone list the best and worst happening of their day.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com