Lessons Learned from Family Meals
Shared family mealtimes have been associated with improved nutrition, reduced risk for substance abuse, promotion of language development, academic achievement and reduced risk for pediatric obesity1. Surely, these reasons are enough to encourage many parents to make family meals a priority.
In addition to these benefits, the experience of eating together as a family on a regular basis teaches children many important life lessons. Whether you have 25 minutes to eat together before a sporting event or hours to linger at the table recounting stories of your day, these family gatherings are daily experiences which provide much more than a hot meal.
Lesson 1: Responsibility
Families juggling full-time jobs, commutes and multiple activity schedules can find time for family meals when everyone pitches in and helps get dinner on (and off) the table. Getting children involved in the kitchen is a great way to establish the importance of mealtime as a family event.
Research in the classroom has shown that cooking with kids and assigning tasks surrounding mealtime promotes independence and a sense of responsibility in the kitchen2.
Keep little hands away from chopping and stove-tops, but encourage help whenever it’s appropriate. Children as young as three can help scrub potatoes and tear lettuce for salad. School-age children can shred cheese, layer casseroles, put toppings on pizzas, pour glasses of milk and clear the table. While it isn’t always easy to get the whole family on-board, if it is expected and reinforced each time, it will become a familiar routine.
Lesson 2: Food Choices
The reality is that for many families, planning meals in advance is a goal to strive for, not necessarily the norm. On nights filled with soccer practice, music lessons or other activities, having a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer will help ensure healthy family meals in a hurry. There's no rule that says sandwiches can't be for supper. Even "hodge-podge" or smorgasbord dinners made up of re-heated leftovers can become balanced meals.
Being creative and resourceful in your family meals will help children learn how to make healthy and realistic food choices. Parents can set a great example in moments where they might otherwise feel like they’re slipping. Stay calm, check to make sure all food groups are represented and reinforce the simple fact that family mealtime is a priority. For more help, check out this Kitchen Staples Shopping List and Kid-friendly Recipes.
Lesson 3: Communication
When a family gathers around the dinner table, there’s a special opportunity to check out from the outside world and check in with each other. This can certainly go beyond the old, “How was school today?” from the head of the table. Make family mealtime a technology-free zone. Turn off the television and other devices. Ask about that math test, about tennis practice or music class. Learn the best part of your child’s day and probe more about what made the best part so great.
Don’t feel discouraged, though, if you can’t extract more than a word or two about your child’s day. Even a simple “please pass the peas” can be a monumental sentence when it’s coming from your five-year-old daughter who, yesterday, wouldn’t have touched a pea with a ten-foot pole. Plus, she used the magic word.
Surely, these reasons are enough to encourage many parents to make family meals a priority. Know that you are laying the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy eating and teaching valuable lessons that will last a lifetime.
1. Harrison ME, Norris ML, Obeid N, Fu M, et al. Systematic review off the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian Family Physician. 2015 Feb;61(2):e96-e106.
2. Cunningham-Sabo L, Lohse B. Cooking with kids positively affects fourth graders' vegetable preferences and attitudes and self-efficacy for food and cooking. Child Obes. 2013 Dec;9(6):549-56.