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Family-Sized New Year's Resolutions

When the new year begins, why not make a resolution to eat better as a family? You can keep good nutrition in mind as well as spend more quality time together at the table. And if you can make more of your meals a family event, experts say you may also be rewarded with some parenting benefits as well.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Oh, boy. Here it comes again. The usual time of the year when you say you are going to trim down on both the junk food and where it ends up on the waistline.

The idea is as important as ever. But with America rediscovering the importance of family life, why not get everyone at home involved in the New Year's resolutions together? As the new year begins, try a new tactic to improve eating habits and the amount of time you spend with the family.

Now you don't have to turn into the Cleaver's. That's pretty unrealistic and just leads you down the dead-end street of abandoned resolutions anyway. Be practical and see what you can accomplish.

Think you can pick up a cookbook of easy low-fat meals and find a few you like?

Can you work more salad and veggies into the meals you already serve?

It's those simple changes that you make, implementing them one at a time, that have the best chance of catching on and becoming habit -- just like the number of times you'll be able to sit down and have a meal with all those other people living under your roof but on different schedules.

Pick a night -- at first, it may be weeks from now, if need be -- where everyone can plan to be home for dinner. Then see how many more nights each month it can realistically happen.

If getting everyone home for dinner during the week would require an administrative assistant to schedule and a psychiatrist to help you handle the stress, then maybe you can be a bit sneaky.

Remember the goal is to eat more healthy stuff and spend time together. What about scheduling a few family dinners on the weekends? That may be the best crack you get at everyone at home -- and you may even be cutting down on the weekend trips to the burger joint. That certainly means healthier eating and actually sticking with a New Year's resolution. And experts say you may get a few bonuses, too -- especially when it comes to parenting.

Breaking Bread Together Means Eating Better

Researchers will tell you that it is a healthy thing to eat together, especially if you can win more control over dinnertime. Children who eat frequently with their families, for example, and actually sit down together at the family dinner table -- have healthier diets than those who don't, according to a report by Matthew Gillman, MD, an associate professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

His study published in Archives of Family Medicine looked at nutritional habits of 16,000 U.S. boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 14.

Kids eating with their parents were eating less fast food, less soda, and consuming more fruits and vegetables, Gillman tells WebMD. Those kids, therefore, had a lower intake of saturated fats and carbohydrates that raise blood sugar, linked with diabetes and hardening of the arteries, he says.

And these early dietary habits affect teens' future cardiovascular health, according to another study presented at a recent meeting of heart specialists. That study showed that the more high-fat junk food teenagers ate, the worse their arteries looked -- and the more risk factors they had for heart disease.

"What kids eat in childhood and adolescence does establish their dietary patterns over the longer term," says Gillman. "This means we have to set good, healthful patterns earlier in life."

Comforts Kids, Improves Family Communication

Family dinnertime also plays an important role in parenting, says Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Since 1996, CASA has annually surveyed 2,000 teens nationwide.

"We've found consistently on surveys that the more often teens have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol," Califano tells WebMD.

Family dinnertime is part of being a hands-on parent, he says. "Family dinner time shows that parents are engaged in the lives of their children. It gives parents an opportunity to sit and talk with kids, listen to their kids."

And it's something that kids want, Califano says, adding that as teens get older, they may say they want dinner together less often and want Mom and Dad to keep their distance. But at the same time, they often want the reassurance that their parents still care what is going on in their lives.

"They may gripe about curfews, about telling parents where they are on weekends. But in our focus groups, it's clear that kids view things like this as expressions that parents care, that they love them. I think that's a big factor in keeping them from drugs," Califano says.

A poll by the YMCA found that "not having enough time together" with their parents is a top concern among teenagers today. That poll also showed that children who never eat dinner with their families are 61% more likely than the average teen to get involved in negative activities.

Kids who consistently have family dinnertime have better emotional health than other kids, says Michael Resnick, PhD, a sociologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Minneapolis and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center.

His data come from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationwide study of 20,000 young people in grades seven through 12. The study was conducted through the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

"Those kids were also less involved in risky behaviors, including substance abuse and interpersonal violence," Resnick tells WebMD.

"The needs of young people don't magically stop when they turn a certain age," he says. "Many kids are skillful at giving the message that parents aren't important in their lives. The mistake is that we believe it. The findings from our study definitely show that kids value what their parents say and do."

In fact, kids say they like family mealtime, he tells WebMD, "because they're always hungry, and because it's comforting to them to have food prepared. And they enjoy participating in that process. They feel competent; they feel a sense of mastery, like they've contributed to something. And kids say it's a time for the family to check in with each other."

What Family Dinner Time Should Be -- and Shouldn't Be

Dinner together doesn't have to be every night of the week. But when it happens, "it should not be a dumping ground for issues that have built up over the week," Resnick says. "Don't reprimand kids. Don't make conflict the focus, or kids will stay away. We're talking about connection and communication."

Also, be sure to turn off the TV, Resnick says. "People need to be able to talk to each other without distractions," he says.

It may even help to light a candle, he suggests. "This is not based on science; it's based on me being a dad. There's something magical about that little flicker of flame. I think a candle is visually very soothing. It helps create a mood."

For some families, dinnertime means "mostly being silent," says Resnick. "For some, it's continuous chatter. There's no magic formula. But it's a good time for families to share with each other what they've been doing, what's been interesting, what's been tough, stuff they're looking forward to, things they've heard in the news. It can be about anything."

Dinnertime is one step toward openness that makes talk about drugs possible, Califano says.

"You can't just say, 'Don't do drugs,'" he tells WebMD. "You have to encourage kids to talk, to be open. The family dinner hour is key in that."

"At the dinner table, you talk about whatever the kids want to talk about," Califano says. "Kids will bring these issues up, and parents can bring them up. But it's a comfortable, simple, basic way to communicate with your kids."

And that could become a worthwhile resolution for your family to make -- and keep -- this year.

Originally published Dec. 1, 2003.

Medically updated Nov. 22, 2004.

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