Employee & Community Health

Family mealtimes make a difference

10/27/2016 by Rose Prissel, MS, RDN, LD

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With summer a pleasant memory and the flurry of back to school over, families are settling into their school-year routines. One activity that should be added to that routine is eating a meal together as a family, because it does make a difference. Research shows that with regular family meals, kids are: 

  • 35% less likely to develop an eating disorder
  • 24% more likely to eat healthier foods
  • 12% less likely to be overweight

Kids also tend to do better in school, with less delinquency and higher achievement in their class work. It also gives them a sense of well-being that can help them cope with bullying of all kinds and avoid substance abuse. Even toddlers have been found to benefit - family meals help them gain language skills. And family mealtime lets parents get a feel for how their children are doing - in school, with friends, emotionally. 

Studies show children gain the most from at least three meals a week with their family. And "family" can be: one parent or both, grandparents and most of the kids. For instance, if you have three children, if two can be there, it's "family."

Scheduling regular family meals together isn't impossible. Here are some tips to make it easier: 

  • Pick a meal, any meal. Mealtime can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, Friday night snack time. 
  • Put them on the calendar. Mark the meals, days and times on everyone's calendar. Remember, just three a week makes a difference!
  • Make your time together count. You don't have to spend hours at the table, but the time you do spend should be device- and TV-free. 
  • Keep it simple. The meal doesn't have to be "special," just healthy and well-balanced. If you need help, check out choosemyplate.gov. Use your slow cooker so the main dish is ready when you get home. For easy, kid-friendly meals, try these recipes from the USDA's "Let's Move" blog
  • Make it easy. Pull out the paper plates and napkins to reduce clean up. 
  • Get the kids involved. Have them plan a meal, help cook or set the table. Let them try dishes from other cultures or a new ingredient. 
  • Aim for pleasant and relaxed. Now is not the time to bring up hot topics or quizzing the kids on their schoolwork. Instead, use the time to tune into family affairs. Ask everyone to tell about something good or unusual that happened that day, or something surprising they noticed. 
  • Be a role model. Children learn from watching what foods you choose, and if you're appreciative and mindful of what you eat. 

The benefits from eating as a family help your kids today, but also helps them establish skills and habits for a lifetime. 

Rose Prissel, MS, RDN, LD, is a dietitian at Mayo Clinic. She has 29 years' experience working in pediatric and adult nutrition, with a focus on preventive care, sports nutrition and weight management.