Most parents look for ways to give their children an edge in life. Sometimes, a very simple act can have important, long-lasting benefits on overall health and well-being.
Most parents look for ways to give their children an edge in life. Sometimes, a very simple act can have important, long-lasting benefits on overall health and well-being. The benefits of creating positive family meal times go far beyond the actual food on the table. Long-standing research shows that enjoying meals as a family offers physical, mental and emotional benefits to children.
Togetherness: Eating together is one important way to build a sense of family unity. When children have a sense of family identity, they feel safe and secure. Conversations around the table help children learn language skills and about their family’s values. Adults can model social skills, good eating habits and table manners. Families who eat together tend to be closer.
Behavior Issues: Teens who have family dinners more than five times a week are less likely to use drugs, abuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes, get pregnant, become depressed or develop eating disorders. You can learn a lot about your kids just by getting them to talk over the dinner table.
School Success: Young people who eat dinner with their family tend to get better grades. Mealtime conversations help children acquire and improve language skills, learn new vocabulary and become skilled and comfortable at sharing their point of view with other people.
Better Nutrition: Children who eat with their families eat more fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy foods and less fried foods and soda. They have higher intakes of calcium, iron, fiber and many vitamins. Developing healthy eating habits at the family table also teaches young people to make healthier choices when their parents aren’t around. This can have a lasting positive influence on the quality of their diets and meal patterns for life.
Weight Concerns: Kids who eat regular family meals are less likely to be overweight or obese. Family meals can help children develop positive attitudes toward nutrition, fitness and their bodies by watching you model healthy behaviors.
Cooking Skills: Put the kids to work to help get the meal on the table. Even the youngest can help with simple tasks like setting the table. Let the kids help chop, mix, measure and plan menus. These are all skills they will need later in life, so teaching them young gives them a leg up.
For busy families, sitting down together for a healthy meal can seem like a real challenge. Look for ways you can add just one more family mealtime every week. If evenings seem too hectic, set aside time for a weekend breakfast or lunch. After you get into the routine, add another family meal until you are eating most of your meals together.
A family meal doesn’t need to be complicated or time consuming. The best meals are often the simple ones. Let the family help with menu planning and keep it easy. Maybe you want to designate a type of food for every night of the week. Think Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays or Pasta Wednesdays. Take advantage of some healthy convenience foods, like rotisserie chicken, bagged salads, cooked rice or canned beans, to make a quick meal. Try to include at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal. Don’t serve soda or sugary drinks; water or milk work just fine. If you serve dessert, don’t use it as a reward for eating the meal or any part of it.
Make the family table an appealing, positive place to be. Turn off the TV, put away the cell phones or games and focus on the meal and each other. The mood should be relaxed and the conversations pleasant. This isn’t the time to bring up a bad report card or harp on your picky eater. Enjoy the company of your family. If you aren’t used to talking during family meals, think about some conversation starters. Ask the kids “What was the most interesting thing you did today?” or “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” or even, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Many fond family memories are made while eating a meal together. Make the effort to have family meals as often as you can and give your kids those memories, as well as health, physical and emotional advantages that will stick with them their entire lives.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.