The Importance of Family Meal Time
Why should families eat together?
Most American families are stressed for time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual routines like playing video games, texting and doing homework. Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day's ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family.
Are there any real benefits?
According to a number of reports done at Colombia University by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), they found that families that eat together have children with less weight and alcohol problems. The children also display healthier eating habits and tend to perform better in school then their peers who eat away from home.
How many nights a week should we try to eat dinner together?
According to the Child's Trends analysis of data from 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, 13.0% of children ages 0-5 in Iowa ate as a family 3 or fewer days per week, 22.3% 4-5 days per week, 64.7% 6-7 days per week. 20.7% of Iowa families with children ages 6-11 eat together 3 or fewer days per week, 24.7% 4-5 days per week, 54.7% 6-7 days per week. . For children ages 12-17 in the state of Iowa, 31.3% families' ate 3 or fewer days per week, 33.7% 4-5 days per week, 35.1, 6-7 days per week. Researchers find that families who eat dinner together five nights a week reap great benefits, but there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals. CASA reports that 59% of surveyed families said they ate dinner together at least five times a week, which is an improvement from ten years ago when the surveys showed only 47%.
Parents can help by:
- Frequent family meals are related to better nutrition and lower risk for obesity.
- Children who ate with their families consumed more fruit and vegetables and ate fewer snack foods than children who ate away from home.
- Children who eat with their families tend to do better in school.
- Families can teach other children to enjoy a variety of foods
- Have children that are less likely to be involved in risky behavior.
- Cooking and serving nutritious meals
- Teaching their children basic nutrition
- Creating conversation and sharing ideas
- Establishing rules such as: turning off the television, video games, and computer. allowing no facebooking or texting while eating.
- Encouraging their children to help prepare meals set the table and help with dishes.
- Have a tailgate dinner before practice or during a game
- Pick a healthy fast food meal
- Don't have time in the evening, then eat breakfast together
- Have a picnic together
- Eat at the park between activities
Getting Them Involved
- Engage kids from the start. If there's time, ask if there's anything they'd like to make-a favorite family recipe, perhaps, or something they select from a cookbook.
- Get kids to the kitchen when you're beginning a recipe and stand little ones on chairs if necessary so they can see what you're doing. Let them measure, mix, stir, and season as much as possible. Even though you'll need to mind and manage all the knives and hot surfaces (ovens, ranges, grills), you'll be surprised at how much they can do.
- Making cooking a game with adding ingredients, reading recipes, and taking turns mixing-and tasting-keeps kids' attention.
- Choose dinners with few ingredients-we love when there are five or less.
- Make-ahead meals are great to do in the morning. Marinate meat or set a slow cooker together and come dinnertime they'll be thrilled to see how the dish has progressed.
- Don't be afraid to try new things. New ingredients aren't as scary at the table when they've had a chance to look them over ahead of time while cooking. You never know what will be their new favorite!
- For placemats, lay out white paper and let the kids draw or write out the words of all the ingredients they used in the dinner.
Tips for Conversation
Even if they're unable to have longer conversations, younger kids like to be included in dinnertime chit chat. Sometimes, a simple "What did you do today?" will result in fun answers about what the child saw on a walk or did during playtime. Asking kids to describe their favorite games, cartoons, or toys will also spark their interest and generate engaged responses. You might ask, "What can your favorite toy or cartoon character do that you'd like to do?"
Additionally, images and photos are great conversation starters. If you have a photo that you don't mind getting messy, try bringing it to the dinner table and asking your child to describe what he or she sees. If it's a family photo, the child may ask who's in the picture and what they're doing. This could lead to a fun discussion about different family members and their lives.
Children love telling and hearing about stories of their parents, grandparents and their ancestry. You could also try kicking off a story with one of the following questions:
- "Do you know the story about how your parents met?"
- "Do you know how your name was chosen, or how your parents' names were chosen?
- "Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences they had during their childhood?"
- "Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?"
- What is the earliest story you know about an ancestor?
Games and Activity Ideas
Try exploring mystery foods. Take your children to the supermarket and ask them to pick out a fruit or vegetable they've never seen before or never eaten at home. Years ago, my kids picked out a coconut, and we spent a whole afternoon trying to figure out how to open it. After taking hammers and chisels to it, we finally cleared out the street below and hurled it from a third-floor window.
You might also want to play with color and taste in different ways. Ask your kids to think up a menu in all one color and then help you make it. Or, ask your kids to think up a menu that has all five tastes- bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami and help you make it.
Another fun idea is to make a restaurant out of your meal. Turn your kitchen over to the kids and ask them to make dinner for you. They may need some help finding recipes that are appropriate to their age, and you will likely have to shop for them or with them. But, on their own they can create a menu and transform the kitchen or dining room into a restaurant. In a role reversal, you and your children will enjoy having them take your orders, bring the food to the table, and serve you.