When you think about family meals, what comes to mind? Typically, it may be special occasions and holidays when your family sits together at the table, perhaps with guests. Family members cook, eat a well-balanced meal, practice manners, talk, and engage. Why doesn't this happen more often?
In many homes, family dinners don’t happen for many reasons including long work or commute hours, after school activities, homework, varied schedules, "starving"children, or being a single parent struggling to do it all without a partner. All of us experience times when the realities of life result in choosing fast foods instead of a healthy family meal, often eaten in shifts or staring at a screen.
Of course, busy schedules and complicated lives can make it challenging for families to to enjoy quality family time, but family meals should be seriously considered due to the enormous benefits to everyone’s well-being. According to a 2011 study published by Cornell University, children who regularly enjoy family meals are 35 percent less likely to have eating disorders, 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods, and 12 percent less likely to be overweight.
Benefits of Family Meals
- Bond and make memories. Eating meals together allows time for family bonding and may even improve mental health. Eating together seems to contribute to fewer emotional and behavioral issues and greater feelings of mental well-being, according to a report published in the April 2012 issue of Journal of Adolescent Health. Children may not recall what they ate, but the memories of being together, without electronic interference, become ingrained.
- Share experiences. During shared mealtimes, children and parents share their experiences, observations and ideas, hopes and dreams. Additionally, mealtime conversations expand children’s language skills, thus enhancing their reading abilities.
- Learn about each other. Being together at a table can be a relaxing time for each family member to share their best and worst experiences of the day.
- Contribute. The planning and preparation of meals and cleaning up afterward presents meaningful opportunities for your family to work together. Relationships are enhanced when siblings or a child and parent work side-by-side to discuss menus, shop, prepare food, and finally sit down together. Everyone’s contribution is meaningful.
- Establish routines. The routine of family meals can provide a sense of security and a feeling of belonging in the family. Furthermore, children thrive on predictability - knowing what will happen and when.
- Develop healthy eating habits. Typically, home-prepared meals include more protein, vitamins and fiber, and less saturated fat, sugar and sodium than restaurant or take-out food. Children learn to eat a variety of healthy foods by being exposed to them early in life. Families have differing opinions about how to encourage children to eat nutritious foods, but common to all is that they need to be offered, and enjoyed by other family members.
But merely understanding the benefits of family meals does not help busy parents get nutritious food to the table. It is important to be sure you are preparing quality meals for everyone.
Healthy Family Dinner Tips
- Plan and shop for food once a week. Having the food on hand saves time and energy.
- Always have nutritious snacks available. Children (and many adults) may get irritable and impatient when hungry. Stock the kitchen with vegetable sticks, fresh fruits, nuts, and low-fat cheeses.
- Keep meals simple. Summer salads or winter stews can contain ingredients that meet a variety of nutritional requirements.
- Use a slow cooker. Start the slow cooker before leaving the house in the morning and come home to a delicious, well-balanced meal.
- Get your children involved in the preparation of meals. Young children might wash vegetables, fold napkins or mash potatoes. Not only does contribution foster competence, a sense of belonging and self-worth, but it may also help get the food to the table sooner.
- Cook large portions on weekends. When preparing meals, it's easy to prepare double or triple portions, and freeze food for busy nights.
- Purchase nutritious pre-made meals. On nights when you don’t have time to prepare a meal, purchase nutritious take-out or frozen food (read the labels for ingredients), and at least sit at the table together.
- Make family meals fun. Focus on relaxing and enjoying each other. Keep conversations to positive and neutral topics; meals are an opportunity for authentic engagement.
- Don’t be hard on yourself when family meals are not possible.
Eating together as a family is more than possible. Start by designating a few days a week to eat together, then, over time, plan even more family shared meals. Many of us focus on dinner time only, but they can also include family weekday breakfasts or weekend brunches. Bon appetite - and enjoy your family!
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