The Family Dinner: Nutrition and Nurturing
Why it's so important to eat together - and how to find the time
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Reviewed by Brunila Nazario, MD
My fondest memories are times spent lingering around the kitchen table with family and friends, sharing meals and lively conversation.
When I was a child, my parents upheld the ritual of family dinners. The dinner table was revered, with rules prohibiting lecturing, discipline, curlers, bathrobes, undershirts -- anything less than proper attire and behavior. My siblings and I grew up cherishing the undivided attention and love that accompanied the ritual, as well as Mom's homey "cream-of-mushroom-soup" meals.
The tradition has now been passed along to my children, who value and look forward to family meals.
Connections and Communication
Sitting down for a family meal is a symbol of love, connections, and communication. Family meals reflect involved parents, who want the opportunity both to talk and to listen to what their kids have to say. It's very comforting to children to know that their parents want to know what's going on in their lives.
Mealtimes can provide quality time for the whole household, fostering family unity and trust, and providing a setting for moral and intellectual discussions that reflect family values. Family meals encourage communication skills, such as patient listening and expressing opinions respectfully. Chatting around the dinner table encourages kids to talk to their parents about sensitive issues. This is also a time to reinforce family traditions and cultural heritage.
Family meals may actually enhance the emotional well-being of teens. A study reported in the 2003 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that adolescents who frequently sat down to family meals had better grades, less depression, and were less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana than kids who ate with their families less than twice a week.
Power Up the Plate
But the benefits of family meals go beyond the warm fuzzy feelings and good communication that happen when we dine together.
Studies verify what some might consider common sense: families that eat together eat more healthfully, consuming less fast food, soft drinks, and fat and more fruits and vegetables. And developing good eating habits early on can help your children be healthier for the rest of their lives.
Making simple changes, one at a time, is the best way to get your family to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fat. Start with working more salads and vegetables into your meals. Then try a vegetarian meal once a week, focusing on foods already familiar to your family like chili or frittatas. Be creative, and remember it may take a few tries before a new food is accepted.
Preparing meals at home gives parents control over both the quality and quantity of food. Sensible portion sizes need to be taught at home so kids don't grow up thinking supersized is normal.
Many adults who struggle with their weight never really learned how to identify hunger and fullness. Help your children understand how to eat until they're comfortably satisfied but not full by letting them serve themselves as early as age 5.
Dismiss the instinct to encourage your kids to clean their plates. This only teaches them to follow visual cues when eating instead of tuning in to their sense of satiety.
Be a Role Model
Parents play a big role in shaping children's eating habits. When parents eat a variety of foods that are low in fat and sugar and high in fiber, children learn to like these foods as well.
Your commitment to a healthy diet will encourage your children to recognize the importance of good nutrition. This can carry over into settings where kids make their own choices. If your child eats lunch at school, review the weekly lunch menu with your child and make suggestions for healthier options.
(I am proud to say that the children of this dietitian have gotten the message, and prefer healthful food. Recently, my college-age son negotiated an increase in his food allowance to help pay for the added costs of nutritious fare at fast-food and neighborhood restaurants.)
Remember that mealtime is an excellent time to teach your children proper behavior as well as good nutrition. Actions speak louder than words, so teach your children by showing instead of telling. Be a role model for good eating habits and good table manners.
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