Do you remember that big piece of furniture in the room near or in your kitchen? You know, it’s made of wood, has four legs, and a bunch of chairs around it? No, it’s not the junk mail repository or the homework center or the magazine rack or the place to file your bills. It’s your dinner table. Maybe it’s time you and your family reacquaint yourselves with its purpose.
Let’s face it: in today’s world, pulling off a family meal can seem challenging, although it may be easier while the kids are little. Experts and a range of studies suggest that the benefits of family meals are substantial. When kids eat meals frequently with their family, they tend to eat healthier diets, snack less, drink more milk and less soda, eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full; all important factors in maintaining a healthy weight.
Kids who eat regularly with their families are also less likely to snack on unhealthy foods and more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Children may even do better in school. Conversation around the dinner table may expand their vocabulary. They get practice at expressing their points of view, giving them more confidence to speak up in class.
But what happens as your kids get older? More team practices…more homework…more social activities…more independence…it all gets in the way of family meal time. It’s crucial for teens to take part in family meals, too. Recent studies show that teens who eat regular family meals are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use marijuana and other drugs. Teen girls who frequently dine with their parents appear to have better self-esteem and experience less depression and less disordered eating behaviors such as dieting and binge eating. Eating with your teens can even decrease the incidence of depressive symptoms.
If you’re ready to make 2009 the year you turn that hunk of wood back into the dinner table, here are some helpful ways to get you started:
1. Plan Ahead. Combine all family members’ calendars into one and find the days of the week when everyone is available. Then make these the family dinner nights. Have everyone commit to keeping these nights and times open strictly for family meals.
2. Shop Ahead. You know how easily the day can get away from you; so, purchase ingredients ahead of time. If you can, maybe even cook a meal on the weekend and freeze if for use later in the week.
3. Make it a Family Affair. Give everyone a dinner responsibility. Even the little ones can fold napkins, pour water, and put out silverware. Older kids can make the salad or help prepare the main dish. Offer your teen a night where he or she makes dinner and you just supervise.
4. Bring it Home. No time to cook? Order healthy take-out, so you can still eat at home.
5. Turn off all Electronics. That means cell phones, the house phone, iPods, and especially the TV! The television is not a member of your family. Focus on each other as you enjoy a healthy, balanced meal.
6. Keep Conversations Positive. Dinner time is not the time to grill your kids about their grades or talk finances with your spouse. Instead, go around the table and have each family member announce the best part of his or her day. Ask what happened at school, tell them about your day, tell a joke, make plans for your next family meal, or for a fun family outing.
7. Make it a habit. All kids thrive on routine…even your teens.
Remember, the important part is that you are all sitting down to enjoy each other’s company over a healthy, nutritious meal. It doesn’t have to be elaborate…soup and sandwiches or breakfast for dinner work just as well as a fancy four-course meal. The most important thing is spending time connecting with your kids. And keep in mind that while it’s great for games, school projects, and jigsaw puzzles, the dinner table is best utilized when all members of your family are sitting at it together enjoying a family meal.