"I kinda want to go out," MacQuitty said. "We could go out for dinner to restaurants maybe once a week, or something like that. Maybe we could eat at something other than in the same place, like outside in the tea room.
"I don't think (family dinners) need to be every day. Five times a week is good enough," added the teen, who is hoping for a little more free time and space.
MacQuitty also envisions eating with his friends.
"I think that'd be fun, other than eating with my parents," he said.
Hunter grew up in a home where she had daily dinners with her family.
"It's important to our family," Hunter tells her son. "I don't think it's that much to ask, really."
As teens get older, they are less likely to have dinner with their families, according to a study published by the National Center on Substance Abuse at Columbia University. There is a nearly 30-percent decline in the frequency of family dinners between the ages of 12 and 17, the report said.
Teens who have family dinners only once or twice a week are three times more at risk of trying marijuana than the average teen, researchers said. These teens are also more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.
In contrast, youth who eat with their families five to seven times a week are at half the risk for substance abuse, the report said. These teens show lower levels of tension and stress, are less bored and perform better in school. They are also "likelier to say their parents are very or fairly proud of them and that they can go to one or both parents with a serious problem," the study said.
MacQuitty agrees his family dinners, which last 30 to 40 minutes, facilitate communication.
"I think it's important to me because they need to know what I'm doing in school and everyday life. It's a time where you talk about things," he said.
He and his parents talk about his track meets and events at work. His mother boasts that he holds the Central Coast Section freshman record for the 3,200 in track and field.
Quality conversation, during which teens feel they are heard, is important in developing strong relationships with teens, according to Dr. Kyle Hinman, a child psychiatrist at Stanford University.
"Dinner can be a convenient time to have that kind of non-judgmental conversation," he said. "When we're eating, usually part of your time the focus is on the food. Hopefully you're chewing and listening because you're eating."
The most important thing is to make sure parents and teens are not just telling each other what to do and what they want from each other.
"Even if you disagree with your teenager, they will tend to appreciate just being heard, just being understood," Hinman said.
Matthew Severson, a recent Paly graduate, believes in the benefits of frequent family dinners, which he says have brought him close to his parents.
After his father retired last summer, Severson and his family began having dinners together nearly every day.
"Definitely over this past year we've connected a lot and talked about our lives, and I've learned stuff about their lives," said Severson, who is planning to go to Brown University. "It's nice."
As an only child, receiving attention from his parents is not a problem.
"I enjoy being there with my parents," he said. "My parents and I are very close. We talk about just about everything. They are the people that I talk to the most in my life."
Denise Clark Pope, lecturer and director of the SOS: Stressed Out Students Project at Stanford University School of Education, confirms eating with each other and talking help boost teen health.
"It's basically one of the single best predictors of adolescent health, both mental health, physical health, sense of connectedness and self esteem," she said.
Breakfasts and lunches eaten together also work to build ties.
Especially in a community like Palo Alto where both parents and children lead active lives, scheduling in a joint meal time is a must, she said.
"'This is an important piece of being in our family, and we expect you to attend this meal,'" Pope tells parents to say to their teens, when the kids would rather eat elsewhere.
"It's the checking in," she said. "That's why the frequency of five times a week. It's hard to let a kid slip through the cracks when you're checking in with them frequently."
When after-school schedules run into dinner times, families should schedule a later meal time together, she said.
Pope advocates 20 to 25 minutes of sustained time together so parents and children can talk. Family members can talk about the highlights of their day, what happened at school, interesting things from work, she said.
"The most important thing is that everybody feels heard," she said.
No time for cooking? Pizza for dinner is good, according to Pope.
"It doesn't have to be a cooked gourmet (meal)," she said. Dining out counts, too.
The good news is that the number of teens having dinners five times or more per week with their families has increased from 47 to 58 percent from 1998 to 2005, the Columbia report stated.
Most teens want to have dinner with their families, the report found. But late work hours, after-school activities and long commutes often prevent families from getting together.
Chasing down her 17 year old has been difficult, parent Preeva Trameil said. She has family dinners two to three times a week -- more if she counts dinners out, she said.
Her older son, who graduated from Paly, used to participate in theater and would miss out on family dinners, she said.
"They would have rehearsals starting at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and go on until 10 or 11 at night," she said. Sometimes rehearsals would run late three to seven days a week, which cut into family dinner times, she said.
"These kids get very involved in their extracurriculars," she said.
But Trameil believes in the importance of having dinners together with her children.
"It's very satisfying," she said. "The younger one is very involved in robotics, and he gets to talk to my husband about things I absolutely do not understand," she said. "But it makes me feel good to hear him talk.
"I like to know what they've been doing. I can't control them, but I'd like a recap," she said.
Despite the report's recommendations, family dinners are no guarantee that teens won't experiment with drugs.
One youth interviewed by the Weekly, who did not want to be named, said he eats with his family and yet also has used drugs, which is not uncommon among his peer group. However, he noted that his drug activity peaked sophomore year in high school, when he had dinner more often with only one parent.
High stress and frequent boredom are often reasons why a teenager will smoke, get drunk and use illegal drugs, the report said.
Pope acknowledges that some families are not as comfortable having conversations during dinner. For them, she recommends starting by talking about lighter topics, such as movies or music. Then move on to school activities.
Given the importance of frequent family dinners and the impact parental engagement has in preventing teen substance abuse, families should make a concerted effort to overcome barriers to frequent family dining, researchers at Columbia said.
Those families already engaged in the habit may still have to navigate the waters of their teens' growing independence.
"I can understand what he's saying," Hunter said of her son's desire for family dinners to be casual and less frequent so he can do his own thing.
It's not something she's had to fight hard about, though.
"It's kind of like a family value," she said.
This story contains 1347 words.
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