For many families in America sharing a family meal has become a lost art. Our hectic schedules revolving around school, work, and after-school activities, make it challenging and sometimes unfeasible to sit down for a family meal. But it is often overlooked how critical this part of the day. The family dinner is a place for conversation, a time to reconnect, share stories, relax, recharge, laugh, and catch up on the day. It develops a close sense of family and deeper connections. As food writer Michael Pollen puts it, the family meal is "...where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation. The family meal is the nursery of democracy." (Pollan, 2013).
Researchers have confirmed that sharing a family meal is good for the health of all family members but also has a significant effect on a child's emotional, behavioral and physical development. Evidence suggests that children who take part in family meals are 24% more likely to eat healthier foods, 12% less likely to be overweight, and 35% less likely to develop an eating disorder (Cook & Dunifon, 2012). Moreover, regular family meals result in less delinquency such as substance abuse and teen pregnancy, greater academic achievement, improved psychological well-being, and positive family interactions. Other studies indicate that dinner conversation boost vocabulary and stories told around the table help to build resilience (Fishel,n.d).
What are the long-term health impacts of regular family meals for kids?
A family meal can have substantial impacts on long-term health not only for the child but also for all members of the family. Home cooked meals are generally healthier than restaurant meals. Cooking allows you to control what goes in your food, the amount of salt, sugar, and fat used, and the quality of ingredients used. For example, it probably is no surprise that restaurants load on the butter and use copious amounts of salt, when you cook at home, more than likely using considerably less of these ingredients. Cooking meals at home also allows you to choose locally or organically grown produce when possible. This in turn means, what you cook at home is more likely to be nutrient dense and lower in sodium and unhealthy fats. These slight changes can have profound long-term health impacts.
Finally, cooking with your child encourages exposure to new foods they normally may not be inclined to try. It teaches children to have connection to their food and develop healthy long-term eating habits. To create a mindful eating practice, I encourage parents to talk to their kids about how certain vegetables grow or where ingredients come from, utilize all senses by discussing the way certain ingredients look, taste, and feel, and lastly spend time with a local farmer. When parents cook with their children and place an emphasis on being mindful it is teaching a skill your child can use for the rest of their lives.
Goals for families to work towards when it comes to mealtime :
- Eat together when you can: Make eating together as a family a priority. It may not be possible every day, but do it when you can. Families that share at least 3 meals per week have children who eathealthier, are at healthier weights and are less likely to have disordered eating than families who eat together less often (Hammons & Fiese, 2011).
- Involve Your Children In The Kitchen: May it be tearing lettuce or stirring a sauce, make cooking an activity that involves the whole family. Children are more likely to feel a connection to the food they help prepare and in turn will be more apt to try it.
- Expose children to a variety of nutritious food: Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, grains, and healthy fats. A study in the American Journal of clinical nutrition showed that offering 3 different types of fruits and vegetables instead of one type increased a child's consumption.
- Be a great role-model: Children want to mimic their parents so eat the food you want your children to eat. Eat in front of them and with them.
Have Fun: Make mealtimes pleasant, relaxed, and fun. Engage your child in conversation and keep the energy light and positive.
Meal Plan: Spend one or two nights a week prepping and planning meals for the week. I encourage parents to have some items already made that can simply be reheated when you don't have the time during a hectic weekday to cook a full meal. Steam green beans, broccoli, sauté mushrooms, and make grains ahead of time too take the pressure and stress off cooking, leaving more time to spend with your children.
Make It An Electronic Free Zone: Discourage use of TV, iPad's, or other electronic devices while eating. Encourage children to be present and positive about the meal.
Embrace Cooking: It takes an equal amount of time, possibly longer, to go to the restaurant, order, and wait for your food to arrive. Embrace cooking, celebrate the important role it plays for the health of your family, and use it as an opportunity to spend quality time with your family.
My Experience With Family Meals
Growing up family dinners were priority. It was very rare if we didn't sit down together. We would wait until my dad got home from work and sit down together as a family and eat a home cooked meal prepared by my mother or grandfather. This lasted throughout my high school years. Everyone ate the same thing. There were seldom "child-friendly” meals like chicken nuggets or mac-and-cheese. But for the most part we were happy with what was served.One thing about my mother was she was not a short order cook. We were encouraged to try everything and if we didn't eat...oh well, we would wait until the next day. At the table we would talk about the day, school, and whatever else was going on. We never ate in front of the TV, the phone was never answered, and we were encouraged to sit at the table until everyone else finished. I specifically remember having to ask to be excused from the table if I wanted to get up early.
I greatly appreciate having spent that quality time with my family. It improved my social skills, taught me how to be well mannered and polite, developed my palette, created a positive relationship with food, and drove my interest in food and cooking. The family meal is something I truly believe in. The "extinction” of the family dinner has really sparked my interest in this nutrition and is something I routinely work on with clients. I've heard from numerous families who have lost this art. Through a simple process of education, adaptation, and cooking lessons, I find ways to make family dinners fit into your routine. If you are interested in working with me, please do not hesitate to contact me!