The Importance Of Family Meals
By Sue Gilbert, MS Nutritionist
Does your family eat from a drive through window and out of a wrapper? Have family meals been relegated to holidays and birthdays? Do kids eat one meal while parents eat another? Is your child's main meal companion the television set? Family meals often suffer in households with multiple children, dual careers and conflicting schedules. However, family meals ARE important. Family meals help you and your children develop nutritional, social and cognitive benefits and should be considered part of your daily requirements.
Always eat family meals - no matter what
- Family meals are more nutritious. A Harvard study found that families who eat together are twice as likely to eat their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day as families who don't eat together. Families also consume less fried food and soda pop when they eat together. Finally, children who regularly eat with family have diets higher in fiber, calcium, iron, foliate and vitamins B6, B12, C and E.
- Kids who eat family meals tend to eat a wider variety of foods. When kids eat a wide variety of good they get more of the varied vitamins and minerals they need, and they become less picky eaters.
- Home meals don't necessarily mean healthy meals. When children eat at home but not with family, they typically do not consume a very well balanced diet.
- Kids are never too young for family meals. Even babies nursing or on formula benefit from being included at mealtime. Pull up the baby swing or infant seat and allow babies to be a part of the meal. Now is the time to establish the routine of family meals, so your child will come to depend on eating meals with the family as an important part of their day.
- Kids are never too old for family meals. A 1997 American Psychological Association (APA) study showed that well-adjusted teens (those with fewer drug and alcohol problems, better relationships with their parents, higher academic motivation and less depression) ate dinner with their families at least five days a week.
- Family meals offer a chance for parent's to be a role model. During family meals, parents can set a good example of healthy eating that children may model. They also display and impart polite table manners. Family meals teach your child these important skills.
- Kids learn more about nutrition and healthy eating. In multiple studies of school-aged children, those who ate family meals had a higher level of nutrition knowledge.
- Kids learn about food safety. Children who eat with families learn about food safety like hand washing before eating.
- Family meals help prevent obesity. Children who have company at meals are slimmer than those who eat alone. That's because they eat less, eat more slowly, and talk more. What a good reason to have a family meal with lots of lively conversation!
- Family meals build vocabulary. In at least one study, kids who ate with their families preformed better in school and had a broader vocabulary. Family meals offer an opportunity for conversations where kids learn vocabulary-building words to help them read and communicate better.
- Children gain a better sense of belonging within the family. Family meals offer a time for a family to come together as a group and develop a feeling of belonging. That sense of belonging leads to better self-esteem.
Understanding the importance of family meals may seem easier then having them. Here are a few tips to incorporate family meals into your schedule:
Guide to planning family meals
- Keep it simple. Family meals don't have to be three course affairs. Take-out chicken supplemented with prepared salads and carrot sticks and beverage is healthy and easy. Or, even a bowl of cereal and fruit is good.
- Involve children in planning and preparation. No matter how simple the task: folding napkins or choosing the vegetable, if the child is involved, they take a greater interest in healthy meals. If they help plan and prepare the meal, children learn important skills in reading and following directions.
- Eliminate distractions that keep you from interacting. This means that television, newspapers, books, video games, toys, phones, and radios must take a break. Include fun distractions like a game of Scrabble, or Candy Land, or other favorite interactive family games.
- Don't rush through meals. Allow for at least 20 minutes so children have time to finish.
- Set reasonable expectations. Kids just learning table manners and how to eat can be messy, that's ok. Learning to like new foods and meals means playing' with them, especially for toddlers. Allow some leniency with table manners when introducing new foods.
- Be creative and flexible. Family meals such as picnics, breakfast for supper, or served in front of the fireplace make ordinary meals special. If parents have to go to a child's game or sports practice, pack a simple picnic to take and have ahead of time. Breakfast, brunch or lunch makes a great family meal too. The important thing is bringing the family together to eat a healthy meal.
- Make mealtimes pleasant. Keep interactions positive. Don't battle over foods not eaten, or too much food left on the plate. Make family mealtime a haven from the stresses of the day. When mealtime is pleasant, children do their best job of eating well.
- Make family mealtime a priority. Children do better if they have a routine, which includes having family mealtimes. If you're too busy for regular family meals, maybe you're too busy. Explore ways to adjust for schedules that allow family meals, or consider limiting the number of activities the family is involved in. If necessary, schedule family meals on the calendar like you would any other very important commitment.