Why family meals matter

By Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD

The most important conversation of our lives happens around the family dinner table. Food nourishes life. Sharing it with family, nurtures living.

September is National Family Meals Month and is meant to encourage families everywhere to share at least one meal a week. When we return to the kitchen to enjoy wholesome meals together as a family, this unpretentious ritual has more power resulting in children who are smarter, stronger, healthier, happier and well-adjusted.

Eat meals together as a family as often as you can. This one simple yet often hard to make happen activity is so important it should be a main priority of strengthening your family. Once you have children, sitting down to eat a meal as a family is difficult when competing with conflicting schedules and other factors – jobs, sport practices and games, school meetings, club activities – it’s a struggle but it is vital to giving your child the advantage they need to succeed in this world.

If everyone in the family can sit down together at least one meal a day (usually dinner) several times a week, this can have a significant impact and influence your child in ways you may not have realized. Even though an article in the Washington Post came out stating that eating alone is a fact of life for many Americans, this should not be the case for children. Children and teens need connection, social interaction and guidance from their parents and eating meals together is one of the best ways to make that happen.

There are three main advantages your child will gain growing up having regular family meals:

1. Improved academic success
2. Improved family dynamics
3. Improved eating habits

Improves academic success

Children and teenagers who eat with their family often during the week, ideally at least 5 times a week, see the following academic improvements:

• They tend to have better school grades
• Families who discuss school events or what’s going on in the news at the dinner table have better communication and vocabulary skills
• Children learn to take turns when speaking
• Improves their social skills at school
• Parents who actively talk with their children at meals show they care and have an interest in their learning
• Better behavior at school

Improves family dynamics

The simple act of eating regular meals together works its magic in the way your child feels connected to the family creating a sense of belonging. When children and teens know that mealtime is a priority, they feel more engaged with their family and less likely to become involved with risky behavior. This significantly impacts their view of life with numerous studies conducted to back this up resulting in:

• Less likely to smoke cigarettes, try marijuana or other illicit drugs
• Less likely to try alcohol
• Less likely to have friends who drink alcohol or use drugs
• Your child wanting to talk with you about a serious problem
• Feeling less stress and tension at home
• More conversation with the family and a feeling of belonging
• Better emotional stability

Improves eating habits

Extensive research has shown that frequent family meals promotes more healthful food intake in children and teens. These studies have demonstrated the following health benefits your child can gain:

• Less likely to skip breakfast
• Less likely to be a picky eater
• Increased consumption of fruits and veggies
• Increased nutrient intake of all nutrients but particularly of fiber, folate, calcium and iron
• Lower intake of processed foods and soft drinks
• Overall better eating habits and behavior when parents role model these attributes and talk about healthy eating
• A feeling of consistent attention and support by their parents which improve eating habits

Making family meals happen

Gathering the family around the dinner table frequently can be a struggle but it’s worth the effort. You don’t have to be a gourmet cook – having order-in pizza together qualifies as a family meal. If having frequent family meals is not a part of your current lifestyle, it’s not too late to make it happen. Here are some ideas to consider:

• Look at your calendar and schedule in what days of the week will work.
• Consider having your family meal be at breakfast or lunch if dinner is not feasible
• Involve your children in planning meals. Look over recipes together, go grocery shopping and let them help out with cooking of the meal
• Keep meals as simple or as elaborate as you want
• Keep mealtime pleasant – avoid discussing bad behavior, grades, etc. – mealtime is a time to gather as a family and to enjoy the food and one another
• Keep the TV, cell phones, computer off during a meal
• Set the table the night before or early in the day
• Be prepared by having simple ingredients on hand to make a quick meal

If all families across this nation would make family mealtimes a priority in their life, think how this could change the dynamics of our home life. The simple act of sitting around a table eating food, keeping the atmosphere pleasant and enjoying one another’s company, could change our culture for the better in so many ways – one meal at a time.

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The Osage County Herald-Chronicle

The official newspaper of Osage County; the cities of Burlingame, Carbondale, Lyndon, Melvern, Olivet, Osage City, Overbrook, Quenemo and Scranton; Burlingame USD 454, Lyndon USD 421, Marais des Cygnes Valley USD 456, Osage City USD 420 and Santa Fe Trail USD 434.

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