January 25, 2007
Think about your parents and family. You probably have many childhood memories of time around the dinner table laughing, talking, and sharing a home-cooked meal. With todays hectic work and afterschool schedules, and few June Cleavers at home, family meals are often squeezed out in favor of fast food or take-out eaten in front of the television or in the car. Eating together with your children improves the nutritional quality of their diets, reduces the risk of becoming overweight, and results in educational and social benefits. With a little planning and cooperation, you will be able to pull together a family meal most nights of the week.
Research shows that children and adolescents who eat more family meals have a greater intake of fruits, vegetables and milk, and a lower intake of fried foods and soft drinks. Conversely, children who watch more television and eat fewer family meals are at greater risk for being overweight. Something as simple as eating with your children can play a significant role in preventing obesity. At meal times, parents can model choosing and preparing nutritious foods, trying new foods and tastes, and paying attention to signals of fullness. Children then learn to stop eating when they are satisfied and to eat a variety of foods. These are all important skills for obesity prevention.
In addition, eating together as a family develops language and social skills. Studies have demonstrated that young children expand their vocabulary by listening and participating in conversations about the days events. Children also learn important social skills when their parents model behaviors such as table manners. Finally, family meals enhance family togetherness by helping family members stay connected despite busy schedules.
Eating together as a family decreases risk-taking behaviors in adolescents. Teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are a third less likely to try tobacco or marijuana and half as likely to try alcohol, compared to those who rarely eat together as a family, according to a study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. As children go through adolescence, there is a general decline in family meal frequency. While 74 percent of adolescents report that they enjoy eating with their families, 53 percent of these same teens report that they do not regularly eat together. Demands from school, work, and extracurricular activities often make coordinating a family meal difficult. Take the initiative to plan for family meals and you can work around many of these obstacles.
Here are some suggestions that may help your family eat together more often: You are more likely to eat at the dining room table if you can get to the table. Dont let your table become a dumping ground for mail, bags, paperwork, and projects. Keep your table tidy and encourage kids to clear projects and homework from the table when they are finished. Decide on the minimum number of meals a week you plan to eat together (at least four meals is a good goal). Check everyones schedule so you can work around sports, meetings, and other activities. Tailgating together at the soccer practice or basketball game counts as a family meal. Plan your menus for the week. Review schedules and be realistic in determining how much time you will have to prepare the meals. Utilize quick and healthy foods at the grocery store such as bagged veggies, and roasted chicken. Be sure your meal includes a salad and an additional vegetable or fruit to help you meet the recommended number of servings. Enlist help from all family members. Younger children can set the table and older children can help with food preparation. Getting a meal on the table is quicker and easier when everyone chips in. If you have a crock pot gathering dust in a cupboard, consider putting it into action. Dinner will cook while you are away and you will come home to a wonderfully delicious meal that is ready to eat. Turn off the television and tune in to each other. Make conversations enjoyable and use mealtimes as a way to stay connected as a family. Leave serious discussions and reprimands for another time. Childrens and parents diets improve when everyone eats together. Make time for family meals the benefits are worth it.Maria Martin, MPH, RD is a wellness dietitian and a member of the Nutrition Coalition. The Nutrition Coalition is supported by the Tahoe Center for Health and Sports Performance working together to promote optimum health through nutrition and physical activity. For more information about the Nutrition Coalition, call 587-3769, ext 228 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. __________________________________1. Cason, Katherine. Family mealtimes: more than just eating together. JADA, 2006;4:532-533.2. Gable, Sara. Television watching and frequency of family meals are predictive of overweight onset and persistence in a national sample of school-aged children. JADA, 2007;1:53-61.3. Beals, DE. Sources of support for learning words in conversation: Evidence from mealtimes. J Child Lang. 1997;24:673-694