In today’s fast-paced and hectic world making time and finding energy to cook a meal and sit down as a family to share it can be especially challenging. But if you can make it happen even a few times a week, this widely-studied ritual has many benefits.
Family meals are protective of children’s health in a number of ways. Regularly sharing meals provides structure and a sense of stability, which can be especially important if you have adolescents. These ages are fraught with many changes and challenges, but gathering around the table with your family can provide a supportive environment for kids and parents to talk about their concerns. Even if everything is going right, mealtime can strengthen the habit of communicating, which could be helpful in handling future problems. Studies show that children who regularly have family meals are more “well adjusted.” They tend to perform better in school, and are more likely to avoid things like substance use, early sexual intercourse, running away, fighting, stealing, depression, and thoughts of suicide.
Childhood obesity is a growing problem, but the family meal can be an effective intervention in combating this trend. Family meals can teach children good eating habits, portion control, encourage consumption of healthy foods, and discourage indulging in unhealthy ones. Of course, the parents must first model these good eating habits. One way to accomplish this is to eat family style. Instead of serving from the stove or plating your child’s food for him, put all of your food in bowls or on platters on the table and allow your children to serve themselves. Guide him to try some of everything, and show him what appropriate portions look like by what you put on your own plate. If you have a picky eater, encourage her to at least try things, but don’t force the issue.
One study showed a correlation between positive feelings during family meal time, for example, group enjoyment, positive communication, and warmth, and nonoverweight children. The study also correlated negative feelings, such as hostility, discipline, or arguing, and children being overweight. If your family has particular topics or issues that generate disagreements, consider making those off-limits during mealtime to strengthen the positive experience around food and meals.
Clearly, if you as a parent are making an effort to provide your children with healthy food and model healthy eating habits, you’re also going to reap the rewards of that behavior. Beyond that, there are emotional benefits in having a dedicated time for connecting with children, husbands, wives, and significant others. It can be rewarding as an adult to communicate, teach, and bond with your family.
Some of the common reasons people give for not eating as a family are convenience, time, and a lack of cooking skills. Keep in mind that meals don’t need to be complicated to be wholesome and for all family members to gain the benefits of sharing a meal. And the time you spend together eating also doesn’t have to be lengthy to have benefits. Meals can be as short as 20 minutes and still have a positive effect for everyone at the table.
Set goals. Try setting a goal for a certain number of meals together each week, and involve everyone in the family in deciding how often and when. You’ll get better buy-in if everyone has input. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be dinner. Maybe getting together for breakfast works better on days when after-school activities or long work days make it difficult to get everyone together at a reasonable hour.
Plan ahead. Plan your week’s menu, and, if possible, shop for most of what you’ll need ahead of time. Having a weekly menu takes away some of the stress around figuring out what to fix for dinner. Develop a repertoire of simple, healthful meals you can make in a short amount of time and rotate them every couple of weeks. Another strategy is to use a slow cooker. You can assemble the ingredients the night before and put the removable crock in the refrigerator. The next morning just put the crock into the pot, turn it on low, and dinner will be ready when you get home. You can also make large batches of tomato sauce, soups, and stews and freeze them for an easy future meal. There are hundreds of online resources to help you come up with quick, easy, and healthy recipes.
Stock your pantry. If you’re not a planner, make sure you have a well-stocked pantry and a variety of frozen meats and vegetables so you can “shop at home” rather than taking time to stop at the grocery store. An occasional pizza night may also be acceptable; it still counts as a family meal. Just be sure to include a salad or other healthy side dish.
Get everyone involved. Give everyone a job while you’re getting dinner ready. Have the kids set the table or make the salad. Turn off the television and video games and make a policy of no cell phones during meal time to encourage conversation.
It can be challenging to start a new behavior, and sometimes it’s easier to start gradually. If you rarely or never eat together, try setting a goal of sitting down together twice a week, and work up from there. With a little planning, you’ll soon be reaping the many rewards of family meals.
November 18, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN