Establishing regular, family meals is one big piece of the puzzle to raising healthy, happy, and well-adjusted kids. The benefits of eating meals together go well beyond nutrition. One of my fondest memories as a child is our family meals. I loved sitting around the table with my family talking about the highlights of our day. Unfortunately, many of us have lost sight of this and life is just not that simple anymore.
Anyone with kids knows it can be a struggle to make time for family meals. There are so many competing priorities in a family's life; balancing work, school, day care and kids' activities are challenging enough. If you include, planning, preparing, and eating a meal together every day, it could end in chaos!
It does not have to be so difficult. When you are getting started, do not worry so much about what you are serving. Just sitting together and eating a meal is just as important. Start with your family favorites and eat them together. It can be at breakfast, lunch, dinner or even snack time. If everyone is unable to make it to the table, that is ok too. The key is to do it regularly, and to do your best to make it a positive experience for all, including yourself!
Enjoying meals together can be rewarding in so many ways. The benefits greatly outweigh the effort required to make it happen. Read on for tips and steps to get started, and you too can create lasting memories for your family.
WHAT is a family meal?
Family members sit together and share the same food.
Family meals can be any meal of the day, even a snack.
WHY are family meals important?
Gives adults a chance to role model healthy eating behaviors and good manners.
Creates opportunities to share family traditions and culture.
Fosters positive family connections.
Contributes to healthy lifestyles.
Offers families quality time together with no distractions.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS of family meals?
Family meals can have both nutritional and psycho-social benefits.
Children are more likely to explore new foods and establish healthier eating behaviors.
Improves the family’s overall eating pattern by including, more vegetables, fruit, dairy and whole grains.
Can enhance communication and bonding among family members.
Has a positive influence on children’s behavior and emotional health.
Some studies have also shown better academic performance, less risk-taking behaviors, and reduced incidence of depressive traits and suicidal tendencies.
HOW to get started with family meals?
Busy schedules can get in the way of the family meal and make it difficult to implement. The key is to make it a priority (at least a few times per week), and to have a plan.
Start with what you already eat, and just eat together at regular meal and/or snack times, as often as your schedule allows.
Do not get caught up with WHAT foods you are serving. Think about HOW first, then worry about the food you serve later. If you already have family meals down pat, check out reallifenutrition.ca for more support, recipes, and resources.
Put away distractions and focus on the food and the company. Consider adopting a 'no phones at the table' policy (this includes parents too!).
Use family meals as a chance to connect by sharing the events of the day, or cultural traditions and rituals.
To reap the benefits, it should be a positive experience for all. This means re-thinking any food rules you may have for your children (i.e. just one more bite, eat this before that, no dessert if, etc.). Do your best to avoid scolding or fighting.
Following Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility will contribute to a more positive and enjoyable mealtime.
Your job as the parent is to decide what to serve, when and where.
Children should be allowed to decide if and how much to eat from what is served.
Provide one or two foods each family member generally enjoys, and do not offer substitutes.
Children may only eat one or two of the foods from the table. That is ok. Continue providing a variety of foods and trust they will get what their bodies need.
Remember: Start slowly, do not change things too fast. Give yourself some grace. It takes time and energy to create new, healthy habits.
Janine LaForte, RD
REAL LIFE NUTRITION