Research accumulated over the past 15 years tells us that families who eat more than three or four meals together each week create children and adolescents who are more well-adjusted and less likely to feel depressed, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use marijuana than those who do not. Preschoolers develop better language skills, and school performance in both elementary and high school students has been shown to be positively influenced by family mealtimes. Eating with your children provides an excellent opportunity to teach manners and respectful communication, and helps to develop stronger relationships.
Additionally, children have been shown to receive better nutrition—more fruits and vegetables, less fat, and soda pop—when meals were more often served at home with parents at the table. This habit has translated to children making better independent food choices when away from the family table. With childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions, family mealtime may be one of the best, most cost-effective treatments around. Furthermore, despite initial reluctance on the part of older children and teens to participate in regular family meals, a consistent practice of family mealtimes came to be preferred by those children because they could depend on that time with their parents.
Yet, any mother or father can quickly recite all the barriers to a successful practice of mealtimes together. Juggling work schedules, after school activities, homework, household chores, shopping for food, and preparing meals can be an overwhelming challenge. However, for those who find the evidence compelling, there are a few tips that can make the process possible.
- Keep it simple. If your family rarely eats together, shoot initially for only one or two meals per week together. Make these mealtimes a priority and a requirement for all the children and at least one parent. As the one or two mealtimes become habitual, try to extend it to three or four meals per week. Use paper plates if you want quick clean ups. Remember, healthy sandwiches count as meals, too.
- Plan ahead. Keep food that can be quickly and easily prepared on hand. Try slow cooker or crock-pot recipes. Give suitable preparation tasks to each child. Even young children can set the table or tear lettuce into a salad bowl. Be supportive of children’s efforts and don’t expect perfection or tidiness. If cooking isn’t the parents’ strong suit, serve healthy take-out meals, pick up a roasted chicken from the grocery store, or make a “breakfast” dinner. If dinner is an impossible time, try eating breakfast together.
- Turn off the TV and telephone. Most mealtimes last about 30 minutes, and meal preparation averages about 35 minutes. Television and telephone calls are distractions that prevent good family communication.
- Don’t use the family table to discuss conflicts. Don’t worry about how much or what your children eat. Provide healthy food and let them choose. If obesity is a problem, serve the food with portions already on the plate, and limit second helpings to fruits and vegetables. Try to keep conversations relaxing and positive. To provide variety to the table conversations, allow children to invite friends for dinner occasionally.
Janice Filler, MD is a pediatrician with The Pediatric Group in Oklahoma City, and serves as Vice-Chair for the FIT KIDS COALITION. Contact Dr. Filler at 945-4220.