5 Ways Family Meals Help Your Children

Article posted in: Lifestyle
family meal time

When I was a kid, supper (‘dinner’ was served only on Sundays and holidays) involved 10 people crowded shoulder to shoulder around a small table in an overheated kitchen. We ate a meal my mother or sister cooked; sometimes my dad contributed by making the salad or grilling the meat. We never ate takeout food, and in restaurants maybe twice a year, if my dad got a decent bonus.

Suppers always consisted of some kind of meat or fish; something starchy like potatoes, rice (brown) or noodles (plain); and lots of vegetables, usually from a can. If you didn’t like what Ma had cooked, you were welcome to make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. These suppers were, like almost everything in my childhood, loud even cacophonous affairs with three or four conversations going on at the same time. And I loved every single one of them.

It turns out those family meals were satisfying more than my hunger. Recent research has found a host of psychological, developmental and nutritional benefits gained by children who sit down at home to a family dinner regularly, rather than eating alone or with a family group in front of a television or even in a restaurant. Children who eat dinner together as a family have lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders; increased self-esteem and resiliency; healthier eating habits, reduced obesity; and stronger vocabulary skills because of conversations with adults.

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While this might qualify as a “duh” bit of research—the benefits being obvious to those of us who have enjoyed regular family meals over the years—the work was warranted by the fact that such meals are increasingly rare. Why? The most frequently cited reason was a lack of time. Those suppers I remember so fondly were prepared by a mother who didn’t work outside the home and served to children who were all finished with school and activities and home by 6:30, as was her husband. As corny as it sounds, things really were simpler then, at least from a time-management perspective.

So what’s a concerned parent to do during this National Family Meals Month? Below, you’ll find five tips for families who want to reap the benefits of spending meal time together. For more great advice on how to get your family to eat more meals together, visit The Family Dinner Project’s website.

Tip #1: Make the Effort

While the research shows the best results accrue to children who eat five or more meals a week with their families, even one meal a week is beneficial. And don’t limit yourself only to dinner. If your family can only spend time together as a whole at breakfast or lunch, focus on those meals.

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Tip #2: Work Ahead—All of You

Time-crunched parents know that the longest block of time in the day can be the stretch from when they enter the house to when dinner begins, as kids (and spouses) whine, “When are we gonna eat?”

To shorten that interval, consider making meals on less busy weekend days and freezing them. Then reheat them after work. You can supplement the meals, or hasten prep time, by using pre-chopped vegetables and meat. And don’t forget to have the kids help; time spent working together in a kitchen is a great way to catch up on each others’ days, and you may find you get more out of your teenager during work sessions than in face-to-face conversations. Same goes for cleaning up: make sure everybody has a job to do.

Tip #3: Say ‘No’ to the Screens

Sure, eating in front of the tube once in a while isn’t going to kill anybody or derail your children’s development. But researchers have found that meals eaten with a TV on don’t have the same benefits as those eaten without; something about the TV discourages deeper conversation and connection. The same is true of small screens: don’t let anybody, adults included, text or surf during dinner. Besides being rude, research supports that texting inhibits conversation, too. So here’s the deal: no TV, and no electronic devices.

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Tip #4: Talk It Up

Meals are a great time to have some real conversations with your kids. Sure, you can go to the old standby “How was your day?” but anybody with a teenager knows the answer is likely to be the one-word conversations stopper: “Fine.” You can use the foods you serve as a springboard to discussions about issues like the environment and the economy or other cultures—especially true if you sample global cuisines as part of your meals.

Tip #5: Don’t be Defeated by Picky Eaters

Some researchers suggest that kids may need to have new foods placed in front of them as many as 15 times before they’ll accept the food into their regular dietary lineup. And as most parents know, forcing a child to eat simply doesn’t work. So try preparing a variety of foods and vegetables that people enjoy—make sure everybody has at least one option they like—that go well with bases like bread, potatoes, salad or rice. They can add their chicken or shrimp to the rice, for example, and season as they see fit.