Does sitting together for meals with the whole family sound a bit old fashioned to you? Do you take dinnertime as an opportunity to catch up on emails, scroll through your instagram feed or watch the latest Netflix shows? Or are you so busy that you do not take the time to sit down for meals at all? For many of us, sitting down for more than a few minutes to eat seems like a luxury we cannot afford, or we sometimes simply forget to. Then why is sharing meals with your family so important?
Unlike previous generations, who would share chores or gather around the fireplace to make music or tell stories, most modern-day American families spend comparatively little time to connect and talk with each other. But research has shown that sharing meals with your family has surprising benefits!
- Sitting down with your family for a meal gives you a unique chance to model good behavior. Table manners, polite conversations, attentive listening and choosing healthy foods are just a few examples.
- Children who eat family meals are more likely to eat a wide variety of foods, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Family meals tend to take more time, which encourages slow, mindful eating, chewing food thoroughly and giving your body enough time to realize when it is “full”. All these are great eating habits to establish, they support a healthy digestion and healthy body weight by preventing our tendency to over-eat in a hurry.
- Some studies even went beyond looking at the nutritional benefits and found that regular family dinners help children feel more connected with their parents, build self-esteem and improve their vocabulary. School- age children scored better grades, and teenagers tended to show less drug use, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and other behavior issues.
Meal Time Tips
If creating a successful family mealtime sounds stressful to you, don’t let the idea of it overwhelm you. You do not have to present a three course dinner, nor do all 3 meals all 7 days a week need to be family meals. Start small! Review your weekly schedule and designate one dinner a week, or one weekend breakfast as your family meal.
Be sure to include a variety of healthy, wholesome ingredients and offer new foods regularly. You can save time by using frozen or pre-prepped ingredients and simple recipes. A quick and easy dish works just as well as a 5 star gourmet meal.
Involve your children in the cooking or preparation process. Depending on their age, almost every child can find something to do. Even my 18 month old toddler enjoys throwing tomatoes into a salad bowl or washing berries in a bowl of water. Yes, this might take a lot longer and involve considerably more clean-up than if I was doing it on my own, but as they get older, children will be able to take on more helpful tasks. Cooking their own meals gives them confidence and they are more likely to eat new and healthy food if they prepared it themselves. I also like to think that by teaching my son how to cook, I am actively fighting the stereotype that only women belong in the kitchen!
Of course, never leave your children in the kitchen without supervision! Be aware of hot surfaces, sharp knives, boiling water, choking hazards and fragile glassware that your child could reach and possibly get hurt.
Keep all conversations polite and positive. Practice active listening and show interest and respect for each other. If an argument arises between children, help them to settle it peacefully, or put the issue aside to discuss after dinner.
Do not pressure your children into eating something, or use food as a way to bribe or reward them. Trust their natural instinct for hunger and satiety and let them tell you when they have had enough. It might be disappointing to see your child reject a dish you spent a long time preparing, but do not be discouraged. You can ask them to try a tiny taste and tell you if they like it or not. Then you can offer it again some time in the future. Children need to taste a new food several times in order to like it, but pressuring them into eating something will not be beneficial.
Navigating Potential Challenges
What about single parents or having an only child? Does it count as a family meal if it is just the 2 of you? Growing up in a big family of six, I sometimes feel guilty that my son does not experience the lively company I enjoyed at the table with my parents and siblings. But the benefits of enjoying a “family dinner” start as soon as there are 2 people sharing a meal together, connecting, engaging in conversation, showing interest for one another.
And don’t forget that friends can be family, too! Maybe you’d like to try my idea of a “family meal” project that I have started with other moms in my neighborhood: we join each other for occasional lunches or dinners without any pressure or expectations other than good company. We take turns hosting and help with the clean-up afterwards. Sometimes we cook together, sometimes everyone brings a dish, and sometimes we even get delivery. The parents enjoy some grown-up conversation while the children get to socialize across different ages.
Especially with picky toddlers, sitting down for mealtimes can be a real challenge. The children might ask for foods, then not eat them or throw them on the ground, or refuse to sit quietly. In those cases try to be patient and communicate to your child in a loving way. You can offer a simplified version of the foods you are eating, and ask your child to sit with you for a certain amount of time that is appropriate for their age and attention span. Remember, you are creating a routine of quality time and a healthy foundation that has countless long-term benefits for your child and your whole family – one meal at a time!