When you dish up nutritious food and share a meal, you serve as a powerful role model for positive eating habits and set the norm for how your children view both food and family.
Family meals provide much more than a nutrient delivery system. Your child’s overall development is spurred by a positive mealtime atmosphere and the traditions shaped through mealtime togetherness offer young children a sense of security. By sharing the day’s events, expressing feelings, and listening to one another, children learn to communicate effectively in a non-threatening environment.
Studies show that mealtime rituals also add up to better health. Children and teens who eat with their families have higher intakes of vegetables, calcium, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, folate, and vitamins A and B6. Studies show that kids who eat family meals several times each week not only have healthier overall eating habits, they also perform better at school and are more likely to attain a healthy weight. Teens and tweens who eat three or more weekly family meals even have fewer high risk behaviors such as depression, substance abuse and disordered eating. According to research from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) at the University of Minnesota, family meals are also related to higher academic performance, greater psychosocial well-being and a reduced risk of unhealthy weight control behaviors.
Sadly, too many American families opt out of the shared family meal experience. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), more than 30% of kids ages 12-17 rarely eat with their family.
Families often bypass sit-down, home-cooked meals because of stressed out schedules and impossibly busy lives. Drive through dining, eating on the run, or grabbing mall or ballpark food soon becomes the norm. A home cooked meal starts to seem like a Herculean task!
The good news is that preparing a tasty, healthy family meal doesn’t have to take hours. Simple, fresh, easy-to-prepare foods can make it to the table in minutes.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Clearly, those who eat together must also plan and organize together – it doesn’t just happen. For families used to grab-it-‘n-go eating, freeway dining, or TV dinners with the TV, a return to the family table requires renewed priorities and commitment by all members. Below are some tips for making it happen.
- Even families with impossibly hectic schedules can squeeze in quick meals. Hold a family meeting each week, deciding on the days and times that will work around soccer practice, piano lessons, concerts, night classes, and work schedules. Jot down meals on the family calendar, just as you would any other scheduled event. It’s not just dinner that counts – shared breakfast, weekend brunch or even bedtime snack sharing all count.
- Consider “faster” food at home. Keep ingredients on hand for quick, easy, healthy meals. For instance, stir-fried vegetables with lean meat, chicken, shrimp or beans over brown rice, quinoa, or whole wheat couscous can be prepared in under 30 minutes. Whole grain pasta with a marinara sauce, Parmesan and salad is a quick, simple supper solution. Keep healthy “quick grab” foods such as a container of fruit sections, raw sliced vegetables or bagged salad on hand for easy side dishes. Another strategy is to make extra when you prepare favorite soups, stews and other healthy dishes and freeze ahead for later use.
- To keep mealtime positive, establish rules about proper topics and appropriate conversation. Bringing up the broken lamp, call from the principal, or tantrum at preschool will inevitably lead to conflict (and indigestion).
- Focus on each other, not the food. Allow children to eat until they are full without forcing “one more bite” or a clean plate. Most experts agree that children develop healthy eating attitudes when they can choose from a variety of nutritious offerings – and not by force or coercion.
- While most discipline should be reserved for another time, it is OK (and sometimes necessary) to deal with unacceptable mealtime behavior. Asking a disruptive child to leave the table for a short period says to the family that you care about the ritual of eating together in a positive, peaceful manner.
- Don’t forget to make mealtimes fun! Laugh together, share funny stories, wear quirky clothes, celebrate your cultural/ethnic heritage, or start your own silly traditions. Aside from the joy that mealtime sharing brings today, you will also fill your child’s memory bank with the special thoughts that only family togetherness can bring.
If you are interested in more information and materials that promote shared meals, be sure to check out the Oregon Shared Meals Initiative launched by the Nutrition Council of Oregon.