The importance of family meals
Why Family Meals Are So Important
"What did you do in school today?" "Who did you play with at recess?" "Did you see that article in the newspaper?" Eating together as a family is one of those things that doesn't seem like such a big deal. But it can make a big difference for your kids in terms of self-image, sense of security, self-esteem and overall sense of happiness. "Regular family meals are probably the best psychological 'daily vitamin' parents can give their children," says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Mass., and author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's." "They're far more powerful in the long and short term than you might think they are."
That's because family meals make kids feel good, especially when you focus on keeping the conversation positive. "Dinner can be a wonderful time to hear about everyone's day or anything else your kids want to talk about that you don't usually take the time to discuss," says Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., founder of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, Fla. It also gives kids the chance to be themselves and share their opinions within the safe confines of home, without risking the rejection of their peers. And even toddlers can begin to feel like a valued contributing member of their family when they scoot their chair up to the dinner table and start to chime in. While the peas are being passed, the open forum gives your kids the opportunity to learn about your family's history and your past.
It's no wonder that family meals are associated with lower teenage pregnancy rates, higher grade point averages, fewer eating disorders in teens and lower risk of depression. Moreover, the psychological benefits go both ways. A recent telephone survey of 2,008 Americans sponsored by Barilla found that adults who eat with their kids regularly with few distractions (no TV or phone) report higher overall life satisfaction. "Family meals pay off for adults and children," says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, who helped Barilla analyze the survey results. It's a ritual none of us really ever outgrow. The key is to start the meal tradition when your kids are young, then keep it up. "When you get your kids into the habit of family dinners, they'll keep doing it when they get older and become more independent," Doherty says. In other words, when they morph into eye-rolling teenagers.
To keep everyone coming back for more, turn off the TV and cell phone and up the fun factor. We asked moms to share the unique ways in which they make meals memorable and festive for the whole family.
We have picnics on the dining room floor.
"Every now and then, my family of seven eats dinner on the floor. We spread out a tablecloth or picnic blanket and eat something on the ground that's really a drag to clean up, like the rice in burritos or Chinese food. My kids think sitting on the floor is weird and fun, and even funnier that my husband and I are doing it, too. I notice that when we eat on the floor, my kids don't complain as much about the food and they can't jockey for seats or get up and wander around like they sometimes do. It breaks us out of a rut."
--Michelle Nicholasen, Somerville, Mass.
We have DIY dinners.
"At least once a week, I'll put out all the parts of the dinner separately and have my husband and son make their own version of whatever it is we're having. With taco night, for example, I'll put out corn tortillas, refried beans, Spanish rice, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, cheese, salsa, meat, and cheese. My husband and son love it because they can make their own taco combos and I love it because I don't have to be the one to do all the work. Build-a-dinner works great with pasta, burritos, pizza and even dessert with company such as a make-your-own sundae bar."
--Jill Houk, Chicago
We have table talkers.
"We have a 'talk about it' bowl, an actual bowl that my kids and my husband and I can fill with conversation starters, such as an article we've seen, a photo we've ripped out of a magazine, or an object, like a funny sticker, to later talk about at the table. If no one puts something in the bowl, I have a list of questions I've typed up and folded up like Chinese fortunes that are meant to stir conversation, such as: What actor/actresses would play you in the movie of your life and why? What's the funniest story you know about yourself as a baby? If you could change your name, what would it be? What activities would fit into your perfect day? Would you be willing to have nightmares every night for a year if you could be rewarded with extraordinary wealth? If you could have one superpower, what would you choose? The questions have changed as my girls, who are now teenagers, have gotten older. But over the years, we've found out some interesting stuff about each other. This game is even more fun to do with guests."
--Jeanne Muchnick, Larchmont, New York
We light candles every night.
"Eating by candlelight makes the dinner seem special and gets my three kids to slow down, have a conversation, and linger at the table to share stories from the day long after the food is gone."
--Pamela MacPhee, Encinitas, Calif.
My husband and sons do the cooking.
"Every Tuesday night, my husband and two sons plan dinner and prepare it. I love it because I have a night off, plus it's a great way for the kids to learn to cook."
I fix lots of finger foods.
"My boys love to dip and dunk so I often serve finger foods such as wings, ribs, celery stuffed with light cream cheese and Greek yogurt, and carrot sticks. I also fill a compartmentalized appetizer tray with sliced cucumbers, sliced peppers, pieces of strong cheese, nuts, olives, crackers, and sliced whole-grain breads along with Greek yogurt, hummus, tzatziki, even applesauce. They love to play with the combinations."
--Georgia Orcutt, Boston
My kids help make dinner an event.
"My girls, ages 8, 6, and 3, help me plan our meals for the week. They'll write the grocery list for me, drawing items if they can't spell them. Then they'll carry the list through the grocery store and check off items as we find them. I think my girls have more fun with dinner because they're included in the process. They've planned entirely green dinners--pesto chicken, broccoli, honeydew melon, and a salad. We've also had princess night in which everyone comes in costume and dinner is served on our good china."
--Christine Bolzan, Boxford, Mass.
Family meals provide a valuable opportunity to reconnect. This becomes even more important as kids get older.
Try these three steps to schedule family meals and make them enjoyable for everyone who pulls up a chair.
To plan more family meals, look over the calendar to choose a time when everyone can be there.
Figure out what's getting in the way of more family meals — busy schedules, no supplies in the house, no time to cook. Ask for the family's help and ideas on how these roadblocks can be removed. For instance, figure out a way to get groceries purchased for a family meal. Or if time to cook is the problem, try doing some prep work on weekends or even completely preparing a dish ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.
Once you have all your supplies on hand, involve the kids in preparations. Recruiting younger kids can mean a little extra work, but it's often worth it. Simple tasks such as putting plates on the table, tossing the salad, pouring a beverage, folding the napkins, or being a "taster" are appropriate jobs for preschoolers and school-age kids.
Older kids may be able to pitch in even more, such as getting ingredients, washing produce, mixing and stirring, and serving. If you have teens around, consider assigning them a night to cook, with you as the helper.
If kids help out, set a good example by saying please and thanks for their help. Being upbeat and pleasant as you prepare the meal can rub off on your kids. If you're grumbling about the task at hand, chances are they will too. But if the atmosphere is light, you're showing them how the family can work together and enjoy the fruits of its labor.
Even if you're thinking of all you must accomplish after dinner's done (doing dishes, making lunches, etc.), try not to focus on that during dinner. Make your time at the table pleasant and a chance for everyone to decompress from the day and enjoy being together as a family.
They may be starving, but have your kids wait until everyone is seated before digging in. Create a moment of calm before the meal begins, so the cook can shift gears. It also presents a chance to say grace, thank the cook, wish everyone a good meal, or to raise a glass of milk and toast each other. You're setting the mood and modeling good manners and patience.
Family meals are a good time to teach civilized behaviour that kids also can use at restaurants and others' houses, so establish rules about staying seated, passing items instead of grabbing them, putting napkins on laps, and not talking with your mouth full.
You can gently remind when they break the rules, but try to keep tension and discipline at a minimum during mealtime. The focus should remain on making your kids feel loved, connected, and part of the family.
Keep the interactions positive and let the conversation flow. Ask your kids about their days and tell them about yours. Give everyone a chance to talk.
Need some conversation starters? Here are a few:
• If you could have any food for dinner tomorrow night, what would it be?
• Who can guess how many potatoes I used to make that bowl of mashed potatoes?
• What's the most delicious food on the table?
• If you opened a restaurant, what kind would it be?
• Who's the best cook you know? (We hope they say it's you!)
Article by metroparent.com and others