Family meals are full of teachable moments — whether it’s conveying family values, communicating respectfully, strengthening family bonds or the basics of healthy eating. Dinnertime can become debate time, however, when teenagers forming their own opinions are at the table, and family meals erupt with conflict.

The good news is that eating together — even while arguing — helps teens develop healthy eating habits.

Add a bagged salad to something you pull out of the freezer, and you can have a nutritious meal.

Over 2,700 teens and young adults from 14 to 24 years old who were living with their parents took part in a study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. They were asked about their family functioning, how often their family sat down for dinner together, and how often they ate fruits and vegetables, fast food, takeout food or drank sugary beverages.

Regardless of how well a family communicated or connected emotionally or how they managed daily routines, eating as a family was associated with a better diet among teens and young adults. In other words, even when family meals were argumentative or contentious, teenagers still ate more fruits and veggies and less fast food or takeout.

“Gathering around the dinner table is sort of a magical thing,” said Kathryn Walton, the lead researcher. “It's a time when families can slow down from their busy days to talk, spend time together and problem-solve. It's also a time that parents can model healthful eating behaviours.”

Evening activities or part-time jobs often get in the way of family dinners, but finding one time a day to sit down and eat together as a family brings benefits, even if it is at breakfast, suggests Walton, a University of Guelph doctoral student.

Meals together don't need to be elaborate events. Get everyone involved to cut down on meal preparation time and also teach teens valuable cooking skills. Add a bagged salad to something you pull out of the freezer, and you can have a nutritious meal. If practical, doing some meal prep ahead of time on the weekends can help pull a weeknight family dinner together quickly, explained Jess Haines, who also took part in the research.

Start with just one meal, even if you have to schedule it on everyone’s calendar. Then do it as often as your family’s schedule will allow, make it fun and keep the focus on the family — not television, not cell phones. It will benefit everyone, nutritionally, emotionally and mentally.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.