Busy schedules for kids and parents make family mealtime a challenge. With our hectic modern lifestyles, this can leave little room in our schedules for family meals. This time together provides important benefits for everyone in the family. Research suggests that children who take part in regular family meals eat healthier foods, have fewer problems with delinquency and experience greater academic achievement. Family meals also support improved psychological well-being and positive family interactions.
Family meals are a wonderful opportunity for parents or caregivers to share stories about their day, memories of their own family traditions, and model healthy behaviors. Here are six key reasons why family mealtime should be included in your schedule.
Family mealtime is where families create their identity; it’s where family happens and it’s critical to our wellbeing.
- Kids eat more healthy foods. Kids who regularly eat family meals with their parents or caregivers consume more fruits and veggies and less soda and fried foods, according to research. This results in higher consumption of key nutrients such as calcium, iron and fiber, which are essential for growth and development.
- Family mealtime is a perfect setting for introducing new foods. Incorporating new foods into meals not only expands kids’ knowledge, but also their tastes or desire for new foods. In a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children were offered pieces of sweet red bell pepper and asked to rate how much they liked it. Every school day for the next two weeks, the children could eat as many pieces of sweet red bell pepper as they wanted. At the end of each week, the kids were asked again to rate how much they liked the peppers. The study concluded that children rated the peppers more highly and were eating more of them - even more so than another group of children who were offered a reward for eating the peppers. The results of the study suggest that a little more exposure and less coercion to “Finish your vegetables!" will teach kids to enjoy new foods, even if they don’t like them at first. Be sure to offer new foods frequently and often.
- You control the portions. Americans spend a large portion of their food budget on meals outside the home. Although grabbing take-out or dining out can be convenient, it comes with a price and that price is higher calories in the form of large portion sizes. Average restaurant meals contain 60 percent more calories than a homemade meal. When you prepare meals at home, you not only control the ingredients, you can control the portion sizes. This can go a long way toward weight maintenance and overall good health for the whole family.
- Healthy meals mean healthy kids. Many studies have shown that kids who eat family meals regularly are less likely to suffer from depression, experience eating disorders or become overweight. They are also less likely to consider suicide and more likely to delay sexual activity, alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors. Kids who eat family meals will more frequently report that their parents are proud of them. This is an opportunity when parents are able to identify feelings of depression or sadness and provide support for their child.
Think of family mealtime as a way to reconnect with each other.
- Family dinners help kids say “no.” As mentioned earlier, frequent family dinners dramatically lower a teen’s chances of smoking, drinking, and using drugs. The act of sitting down to a family meal together, multiple times per week, can be a simple yet effective tool to prevent risky behaviors among teens. Family meals help kids feel safe, listened to and closer to their parents, which results in more sharing about what is happening in their lives.
- Better food = better report cards. Family meals provide opportunities for conversation with adults, which can result in improved vocabulary. Improved vocabulary impact reading scores, resulting in improved grades in other subjects. Serving kids foods that are nutrient rich, meaning they include vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients vital for health, leads to better academic achievement.
How to encourage family meals at home
Family mealtime matters. It is an opportunity for family members to build strong bonds by connecting with each other through conversations about the day, sharing traditions and making memories. Here are a few suggestions to help make family mealtime happen for your family:
Schedule family meals. Set aside time on the calendar for family meals just like you schedule other important activities, appointments and events. Make it non-negotiable. If you must cancel for a very good reason, make sure to reschedule the meal for another time during the same week.
Plan ahead. Use make-ahead recipes that you can freeze - or use the slow cooker or pressure cooker. Combination slow cooker/pressure cookers can help you get a healthy meal on the table in no time.
Keep meals simple. Family meals don’t have to be big grand affairs. Choose a protein, whole grain, vegetable and/or fruit and you will have a balanced healthy meal to serve to your family.
Plan family meals besides dinner. You may still find it a challenge to incorporate family mealtime into your schedule. If this is the case, find 15 to 30 minutes when you and your family can sit together to recap the day. Maybe it is during a bedtime snack or a picnic in the park before soccer practice. Do keep in mind that as a parent, you do not have to do everything. Get the kids involved in the planning, shopping, preparing and clean-up of meals. When kids are involved in the process, they are more likely to consume the foods you offer them.
Eliminate distractions. Turn off all electronic devices, including the television and focus on each other. This should be a time to relax, share and reconnect.
The YouTube video, “Who would you most like to have dinner with?”, is a powerful video that demonstrates how important family meals are and how they affect our children. The video begins with asking only the parents “Who would you most like to have dinner with?” Their responses varied from Nelson Mandela to Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian. Next, children are brought into the room with their parents watching from a separate room. The children are asked the same question, keeping in mind that the kids have not heard what their parents shared. The children all respond that they would like to have dinner with family, their parents and extended family. Many of the parents became emotional to hear that what their children wanted was to spend mealtime together.
What can you do to make sure family mealtime becomes a tradition at your house?
Sit down with your family to find times that work for family meals. Keep in mind that family meals can be at breakfast, lunch or dinner - during the week or on weekends. Find a time that works for your family, put it on the calendar and stick to it. Try using open-ended questions to start family conversations. One question to ask could be, “What was the most interesting thing that happened today?” This is different than asking, “Did you have a good day?” because it prompts your children to share more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
If you are in an Indiana 4-H Club or are a 4-H Club leader in Indiana, consider incorporating information regarding the benefits of family mealtime into your club meetings and consider scheduling club meetings before or after typical family mealtimes.
If you are interested in additional family mealtime resources, contact Indiana 4-H Healthy Living Specialist Angie Frost at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Visit our Indiana 4-H Facebook page (@Indiana4H) and tell us how you incorporate family mealtime into your busy schedule.
Angie Frost is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension and registered dietitian. She leads a team of county Purdue Extension staff, and collaborates with campus specialists and faculty to provide opportunities for Indiana 4-H youth to learn about healthy living.
Arin Weidner is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension. She supports Indiana 4-H programming by creating technology-facilitated curriculum and learning opportunities. She collaborates with Purdue Extension staff and faculty to develop new ideas for learning in 4-H for youth and adults.