We are aware that family meals are important, however, it may be tough to find the time to do so. In fact, family mealtime has been lost due to our overscheduled lives; family dinners happen less often for many reasons, including busy work schedules, homework, after-school activities, or due to special family dynamics. Family meals nowadays would happen more often when there’s a special occasion (e.g. birthdays, graduation, when your extended family members visit, etc.) and holidays. A study has shown that in the United States, about 70 percent of meals are consumed outside the home, and 20 percent of meals are eaten in the car. According to research by The Family Dinner Project, about half of American families rarely have family dinners.
Why is Family Mealtime Important?
- Establish routines and expectations. Sitting down and having meals together at the dinner table will create a sense of security and a feeling of belonging in the family. While spending family mealtime together, parents can implement and educate your child on good table manners. Children will then learn what the expectations are and know what to practice, experts show that children thrive on predictability as they learn to get used to routines.
- Enhance communication. Family mealtime is meant to keep your family connected; it is a time of respite from the hustle-bustle of everyday life. Parents and children can review the day that has passed and even plan for the upcoming day. While sharing experiences, plans, hopes, and dreams at the dining table, not only do you get to hear from every family member, but mealtime conversations like these are also able to expand your child’s language skills, as well as improve their reading abilities at the same time.
- Develop a healthy diet and eating habits. A study found that family meals are more nutritious than ordering take out or dining out, home-prepared meals are likely to have more protein, vitamins, fiber, and less saturated fat, sugar, and sodium; families who eat together are twice as likely to increase their fruits and vegetable intake compared to families who don’t eat together. Through family mealtime, children will get exposed to healthy foods early in life and be able to continue to eat them as they grow. Research has also discovered family meals are linked to obesity prevention, people tend to eat less during family meals as they would eat more slowly and talk more.
- Positive psychological effects on children. Family researchers notice positive trends in children’s nutritional and emotional health when they have at least three family meals a week. When families have five to seven meals together a week, research has found the greatest benefits in teen and family health, higher-quality relationships with parents and other family members were reported. Family meals have links to lower rates of teen substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression. On the other hand, family meals are found to have a stronger link with higher grades at school, self-esteem, and resilience.
Tips for Making Family Mealtime More Successful
- Start small: If you believe it will be overwhelming for you to go from 2 meals a week to 7 meals, try to start small and take one step at a time. Plan ahead by looking at your family’s schedule and try to find at least one mealtime that works for everyone, add your plans to the calendars to let all family members know.
- Be flexible: If any last-minute changes gets in the way of family mealtime, plan it later in the evening when everyone is available, a family snack time with hot chocolate works just fine. For some families, the family table may only have one adult due to many factors, always remember that the purpose of family mealtime is to create a sense of connection within the family. The Family Dinner Project mentioned that as long as the dining table has two family members who eat and talk, it counts as a family meal.
- Keep it simple: Family meals do not always have to be extravagant and stressful. Summer salads or winter stews may also have ingredients that meet a variety of nutritional requirements, the purpose is for all family members to come together and enjoy each other’s company while having a great meal together.
- Make it fun!: For some people, family meals may seem serious and only “important” updates are shared. Try to focus on relaxing and enjoying each other by creating positive and neutral conversations to keep everyone engaged. It is important to note the dining table is not a place for stress, arguments, or putting all focus on your kids’ grades at school. People will only benefit from family mealtimes mostly when the atmosphere is fun and welcoming. A strategy to keep family meals lively is to come up with theme nights, and involving your kids in the decision-making process would be beneficial too! For instance, Taco Tuesday, breakfast for dinner, and more
- Avoid comments at the dining table: A study has shown that when you make comments about how much or how little the person has put on their plate, it is possible to prompt the child to become stubborn and would resist the food, which then creates tension at the table. Studies also show that when you reward your child for eating foods they dislike, it could also be counterproductive. For example, if your children dislike carrots and peas but they will get more iPad time if they finish the portion on their plate. As a result, children are likely to express more resistance towards the foods they dislike and get used to the habit of expecting rewards.
For more information regarding parenting and family mealtime:
The Family Dinner Project is a website founded by Dr. Fishel, who is a clinical psychologist and has expertise in family therapy. It includes various food recipes, advice to overcome common challenges, ways to create lively conversation, and a lot more helpful resources focusing on the importance of family mealtime.
By: Jessica Lau, MHC, EAP Counselor