When I was little, my family ate almost every meal at the table — breakfast, lunch and supper. It was a rare treat to eat in front of the TV, and that happened only on days when we were home sick or for the occasional Saturday sandwich lunch.
As a kid, eating on a tray in front of the TV was awesome. But as an adult, I realize that what was going on at the table was far more important. Now, as a busy mom with a busy family, getting us around the table for meals (at the same time) can be a challenge but is well worth the effort.
Research indicates a range of benefits from dining together as a family, including increased consumption of healthy foods, lower rates of obesity and a decreased likelihood of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression and eating disorders. In addition, family dining has been shown to increase vocabulary, raise self-esteem, increase grade-point averages and foster family relationships. All this in one hour a day!
Here are some tips to get started:
- Find a day to start and put it on the calendar. Don’t wait for life to get less busy — it probably won’t anytime soon.
- Aim for three to five family meals per week. Dinner isn’t the only option. Breakfast, lunch and snack time are also great opportunities to eat together.
- Turn off the TV, phones and other distractions, and focus on conversation. Children love hearing stories about their parents and enjoy sharing stories about their own busy day. Ask about favorite games or the favorite thing they saw today.
- Try serving food family-style. In other words, passing bowls and allowing everyone to serve themselves. Children tend to eat better when they have control over what to choose and how much. They are also much more likely to try new things if they see you enjoying new foods.
- Have fun with it. If there are topics that tend to get folks riled up, make those off-limits during mealtime. Eat on a blanket in the yard on a pretty day. Play I Spy for ingredients in the meal, or talk about favorite characters in books or cartoons.
- Teach good table manners, but only work on one at a time. In most cases, even adults can work on improving their manners, so everyone can practice together.
- Keep your expectations realistic. A toddler may only last for 10-15 minutes at the table and that’s OK.
Probably the most important reminder is to keep it simple. Family dinners don’t have to be elaborate. The food doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, simpler food is often the healthiest.
Involving kids in the preparation process or setting the table can get everyone involved and share the workload. So, pull up a seat at the table, light a candle or add some flowers to make it special, slow down and enjoy a meal together. The rewards are deep and lasting.
For some more great tips, check out the Family Dinner Project.
Rainbow in My Tummy is a nutrition-enrichment program created by the Verner Center for Early Learning. Rainbow in My Tummy works with early care and education centers to improve the quality of food served to young children and to cultivate a food culture that establishes a foundation for lifelong health. For more information, contact Rainbow in My Tummy Director Bronwen McCormick at 298-0808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.