Regular family meals result in significantly healthier and happier children, teens and parents. Sharing meals as a family, however, is not always easy due to time constraints and conflicting schedules. In addition, the atmosphere created at mealtime greatly impacts the benefits gained. Here’s how to optimize mealtime in your household:
Mealtime Barriers and Promoters
Certain factors or conditions hinder or discourage family meals, while other factors greatly increase the likelihood of family meals taking place.
Family meals are less likely to happen when:
• It’s a single parent household or both parents (especially mothers) work full time and have demanding work schedules
• Family members have different schedules or activities that conflict with mealtime
• There is a lack of meal planning
• Processed, convenience foods and fast foods are served frequently
• The meal environment is unpleasant or stressful, including frequent arguments among family members
During the teen years there is a decrease in shared meals due to the competing demands of after school activities, jobs, and an active social life. This drop, however, is not because teens have lost interest in the family meal. Parents need to understand this and continue to make every effort to include teens at mealtime whenever possible.
Family meals are more likely to happen when:
• It’s a two parent household and ideally, one of the parents works part-time, works from home, or is a stay-at-home parent
• Parents put a high priority on family meals (even when both parents work, if family meals are prioritized, these meals are much more likely to take place and work status has significantly less impact)
• There is good communication between family members about work and after-school schedules so that meals can be planned around these activities
• Family members know how to cook and feel comfortable in the kitchen
• Home-cooked meals are prepared more often (these meals are healthier and of higher quality too)
• Parents set goals and commit to a certain number of family meals each week
• Time is spent planning meals, including making grocery lists, getting some or all of the meal ready ahead of time, and using pockets of available time for food preparation
• Families use effort-saving appliances, such as slow cookers and microwave ovens
• Parents establish a culture in which family members are expected to be present at meals
• There are structured mealtime routines, like setting the table and eating at the same time each day
• The mealtime atmosphere is pleasant, and conversations are fun and interesting for the whole family
Maximizing The Benefits
To optimize the benefits that come from sharing a family meal, the following guidelines are recommended:
• Ideally, aim for a minimum of 5 family meals per week, with an emphasis on shared family dinners. Weekends are great for family breakfasts or brunch too.
• Get everyone involved. Kids can help set and clear the table and even cook meals as they get older. Mom and dad can take turns cooking depending on schedules (research shows that moms find it stressful to be responsible for all meal preparation and cooking).
• Eat at the table in the kitchen or dining room and if possible, have both parents present. No television, cell phones, or other electronics allowed at mealtime (this applies to kids and adults!).
• Aim for a positive, warm, argument-free, and supportive environment. Chaotic meals, being too permissive at mealtime, and inconsistent discipline, are all detrimental to a good family meal.
• Create regular mealtime rituals. For example, at dinner, have everyone share the best part of their day, the most challenging part of their day, and something they learned that day.
• Don’t force, threaten, bribe, or reward children to eat and don’t make them clean their plate. Parents are responsible for serving healthy and nutritious foods at regular mealtimes, but children get to decide what and how much they eat. You want kids to develop a healthy relationship with food.
• Serve new foods regularly and repeatedly. Repetition is especially important for younger children – some kids need to be exposed to a new food as many as 10 to 15 times before they accept it. Many parents give up after less than 3 tries.
• Don’t rush the meal. Shorter meal times are linked to a higher risk of obesity. A quick family meal, however, is still better than none.
• Use mealtime to teach kids about how food impacts health. Children are most likely to respond to nutrition messages and education between the ages of five and eleven. Simple, positive messages are often most effective. Nutrition talk, however, should not dominate meals or be the main focus of mealtime. Enjoying meals, including the taste of foods, and parental role modeling matters more (one of the strongest predictors of what children eat is what their parents eat).
• At least some of the time, have extended family and friends to join you at mealtime. This teaches kids to socialize in a variety of mealtime situations.
Last, but not least, understand that what really matters at mealtime is parental engagement. All parents should make every effort to show genuine caring and interest in their child’s life. Ultimately, the family meal is really about love.
Prioritize, plan, and commit to regular family meals. Meals should be healthy, positive, and enjoyable for all. Share food, laughter, knowledge, and definitely love.
P.S. If you need help with conversation at the dinner table, check out these conversation starters. They help keep meal times interesting and fun.