Family mealtimes make a difference
9/21/2023 by Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., RDN, LD
With summer a pleasant memory and the flurry of back-to-school over, families are settling into their school-year routines. One routine to make a priority this school year is family meals — together — because it does make a difference.
Research shows that there are many ways that eating meals together as a family can impact children. Benefits include:
- Better physical health: Family meals are associated with better fitness levels and less likelihood of developing an eating disorder or of being overweight.
- Healthier eating habits: Kids who eat more family meals also have more fruits and veggies, fewer sugary drinks and healthier portion sizes. Teens have better cardiovascular health.
- Improved communication: Routine communication at family meals can help the whole family — promoting language development for toddlers and supporting more closeness among family members.
- Higher academic achievement: Regular family dinners are associated with kids doing better in school.
- Better mental health: Regular family meals are associated with a lower risk of depression, anxiety and stress and can lead to greater resilience in kids.
Knowing these benefits can boost your family's efforts to make family meals happen.
Scheduling regular family meals together isn't impossible. Here are some tips to make it easier:
- Pick a meal, any meal. Mealtimes can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch or any intentional nighttime snack.
- 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 do not have to spend hours at the table, but the time you do spend should be device- and TV-free.
- Keep it simple. The meal does not have to be "special," just healthy and well-balanced. If you need help, check out myplate.gov. Use your slow cooker so the main dish is ready when you get home.
- 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, set the table or wash the dishes. Approaching the family meal as a team effort can help everyone feel important and lessen the load on parents/caregivers.
- Consider theme meals. Taco Tuesdays, breakfast for supper, soup night and more. A theme can add an element of fun to meals. Encourage and give opportunities to 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 quiz 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. More ideas for mealtime conversation starters can be found at Conversation - The Family Dinner Project.
- Make it enjoyable. For ideas about games to play at the table that may spark conversation or bring on laughter, check out games by age on The Family Dinner Project website.
Be a role model. Children learn from watching what foods you choose, your pace and mindfulness of eating. Parents' attitudes and approaches to mealtime will set the mood for the whole family.
The benefits of eating as a family help your kids today, but also helps them establish skills and habits for a lifetime.
Michaeleen Burroughs, M.S., RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson. She guides patients and families toward healthy eating. Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.