Family meals are critical to your child’s well-being: How to implement them successfully

Family meals are critical to your child’s well-being: How to implement them successfully

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She has so many children she didn’t know what to do. So she gave them some broth without any bread, and spanked them all soundly and sent them to bed.

That is one scary mommy! Or maybe she’d just had a really bad day and was overwhelmed, and maybe the spanking was really more like an affectionate pat on the behind. Either way, that is a great example of how NOT to implement family meals. 

Throughout the history of the Earth, until about 70 years ago, families ate their meals together. What’s more, they prepared them together and cleaned them up together for the most part. Preparation and cleaning did typically fall to the women and girls while providing fell to the men and boys, but they were still together.

Is the iconic, Norman-Rockwell-style, traditional family dinner a thing of the past? In today’s households where parents go off to work and kids have busy schedules with school, homework and a full schedule of afternoon lessons, finding time to gather for meals is difficult. Do we call it obsolete and let it become an antiquity?

No! Family meals, including preparation and cleanup, are critical to every aspect of our children’s well-being as well as to the stability and happiness of our families.

 

Children benefit academically from family meals

In the Foreword to the book, Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius Shari Lewis writes, “A couple of years ago, there was a study to determine what caused children to get high scores on the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests). I.Q., social circumstances, and economic states all seemed less important than another subtler factor. Youngsters who got the highest SAT scores all regularly had dinner with their parents.”

Further, the National Center On Addiction And Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) has done a series of studies on the importance of family meals. One study showed that kids who ate with family 5 to 7 times per week performed much better academically, reporting mostly As and Bs, while kids who eat with their family less than 3 times a week were twice as likely to report receiving Cs or worse in school.

 

Children learn social skills and emotional intelligence at family meals

Young children need to know simple social skills, like how to cooperate, listen to others, be respectful and take turns. But older children need increasingly more complex social skills, thanks to growing peer pressure. Adolescents best learn social skills and emotional intelligence from parents, who model it from a position of perspective, experience and love.

In order to navigate adolescence successfully older children need to learn difficult skills such as how to be assertive about their needs, how to handle anger constructively and how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Adequate social skills give teens the confidence to resist peer pressure to engage in destructive behaviors.

CASA found that the more often teens eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs. The center compared teens who dined with their families five or seven times a week with those who did so twice or less. Those who ate together more often were four times less likely to smoke, 2.5 times less likely to use marijuana, and half as likely to drink alcohol.

Additionally, teens who eat with their families fewer than three times a week report that the TV is usually on during dinner or that the family does not talk much. Conversely, families who typically dine together find lots to talk about. Common topics include school and sports; friends and social events; current events; and even family issues and problems.

Frequent conversations with parents and adults strengthen youth, giving them confidence to make better choices. Mealtime conversations, because of their relaxed, nurturing and comfortable nature, and because they are daily and habitual, are particularly suitable for creating lifelines–connections to family members.

Mealtime conversation provides opportunities for families to casually discuss concepts such as honesty, morality and to convey important family values.

The work of Larson, Branscom and Wiley has highlighted the unique and powerful role of shared family mealtimes in modeling behavior for children and conveying cultural traditions (), and in providing an opportunity for parents to engage in activities that promote literacy, learning, and healthy behavior ()

 

Frequent family meals reduce incidence of mental and emotional problems

CASA reports that family dinners have been linked to positive mental health. Adolescents and young adults who seek treatment for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems are about half as likely as their peers to have regular family meals. CASA found that teens that frequently eat with their families are more likely to say their parents are proud of them. These teens say their parents are people they can confide in. They also have half the risk for substance abuse as the average teen.

Research also suggests that when a family eats together they feel a strong bond with one another. Everyone leads disconnected lives at work and school, and this time allows them to reconnect . Strong bonds and connections between family members protect against risky behavior and create emotional resilience as well as substantially lessening the impact of peer groups.

Research examining 5,000 teenagers has shown that when children eat with their parents regularly, they are more likely to be emotionally strong and have better mental health. Teens who ate regular family meals were also more likely to be well-adjusted, have good manners and communication skills.

This effect is not restricted to the children – mothers who ate with their families often were also found to be happier and less stressed as compared to mothers who did not. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM employees and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office.

 

Family meals lead to better nutrition

Families that eat together exhibit better health. A 2000 study from Stanford University found that the nine to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently consumed more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber. Matthew W. Gillman, MD, the survey’s lead researcher, noted that family dinners allow for both “discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods.”

Another study from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has conducted similar research and concluded that children who join family dinners receive better nutrition, with more vitamins and minerals.

 

Additionally, research from the American Society For Nutrition found that young children who ate at home with their families had a lower body-mass index than kids who did not. That’s most likely due to the fact that home cooking is more nutritionally dense than restaurant meals, which boast larger portion sizes and higher calorie counts.

 

Family meals are better for your budget

I have several friends whose families don’t eat meals together. Rather, everyone fends for themselves, grabbing a TV dinner from the freezer or a box from the pantry. I grocery shopped with one of those friends once and was astonished at the cost of her groceries, especially compared with mine. 

My cart was full of staples: flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, meat and produce. Hers was full of TV dinners, boxed meals, frozen pizzas, sandwich fixings, prepared desserts and beverages. I remember thinking that my supplies would last longer, and they cost less than half as much.

When the whole family is eating the same mealy there is far less wasted food, as well. When you throw food away, you are essentially throwing away your hard-earned money.

So how do parents implement successful family meals?

It’s easy to see that family meals are critical to the well-being of your children and family. Science and the Bible both back up that claim. But how can parents and families who have already established bad habits change them to good ones and successfully implement family mealtimes?

Think of dinner as a celebration

Celebrate small victories each day, and always be on the lookout for something to celebrate. Watch for kind acts, or honesty, or diligence in completing an assignment. Announce the celebrations at dinner and watch your kids’ faces light up! Spending your day watching for good things to celebrate will change your perspective and you will find you are happier.

It doesn’t matter what you’re eating or whether your plates match; what does matter is the people! Barbara B. Smith, general president of the Relief Society, said, “Let us make our kitchens creative centers from which emanate some of the most delightful of all home experiences” (“Follow Joyously,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, 86).

It’s also important to bring a cheerful attitude and sense of humor to the table. Your children will forgive you if you burn the spaghetti as long as you laugh about it with them. According to Proverbs, “He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast” (Prov. 15:15). 

Inviting neighbors and friends to share our meal is another way of making meals feel like a celebration. Dinner guests tend to add a little spice to an otherwise routine daily meal.

Plan for quality mealtime conversation

To achieve quality conversation, we find it helps to eliminate as many distractions as possible before we sit down to eat. Phones, television and electronic devices make it impossible to focus on the old-fashioned art of person-to-person conversation.

If you are just beginning to institute family meals, you may find you need to plan conversations. Until conversations become natural and spontaneous, these 50 conversation starters might benefit your family. The most important thing we’ve learned is to keep mealtime positive. Solve family conflicts at a different time and place.

It is important for every family member to have a turn to talk.  This is easier said than done because older or more assertive family members tend to monopolize the dinner table conversation. Sometimes it helps to go around the table giving everyone a chance to answer a question. We also like to discuss movies, books, news or what the children are learning in church or school. It’s also a great time to discuss upcoming plans and vacations.

Mealtime conversations can be a genuine family lifeline to connect busy families swimming in a sea of hectic and conflicting schedules. Families who eat together are more likely to take an interest in what all family members are doing.

Utilize meal preparation and cleanup to your advantage

Family meals are critical to your child's well-beingWhile mealtime conversations are enjoyable and valuable, most of our very most memorable and valuable interaction occurs as we prepare the meal and clean it up afterwards. I usually involve only one or two children at a time in meal preparation, in order to facilitate more personal interaction, but we all work together to clean up.

Family Work, the endless, ordinary work of feeding and nurturing a family, is one of God’s greatest blessings to us, His children, because it is social and can be carried out at a relaxed pace and in a playful spirit, with joyful interaction between the participants.

 

Establish Mealtime Routines

Because children thrive on schedules and routines, and because habits are easier to acquire when they are scheduled, you may want to set specific times each day for meals. Decide as a family what activities will need to be eliminated or rescheduled in order for everyone to attend family meals.

You should probably make a rule that electronic devices are not allowed if your goal is conversation and interaction.

We begin our meals with family prayer. This is a great way to invite a spirit of gratitude to our table. Grateful families are happy families.

Meal preparation and clean up are some of our favorite and most valuable parts of our mealtime routine. My children also like to be involved in menu planning and shopping each week. You many want to create a schedule, with children helping in different roles on specified days of the week. 

 

Create memorable mealtime traditions

We like to use my nice china for Sunday dinners and holidays in order to make them feel more special. Most holidays meals are spent with our large extended family. We like to eat on the patio during the summer. The birthday child gets to choose the dinner menu. All of these are fun traditions your children will love and look forward to. 

Some other memorable mealtime traditions are hot dog roasts in the mountains near our home, picnics at the park, roasting marshmallows on making personal pies in our wood stove in the basement, and cookouts over the fire pit in our backyard. The meal becomes more fun just because the setting is different.

Traditions don’t require any money, but pay large dividends in the form of fun memories!

 

 

 

Of course, there is no guarantee that the simple act of eating at home with family will save children from developing unhealthy lifestyles or making regrettable choices down the road. It may not make them more virtuous or responsible. But it will absolutely lay the groundwork for a lot of things that point them in the right direction.

Make dinnertime a family commitment. It is important for family members to make an effort to be home for dinner, as often as possible. If you can’t sacrifice the activity or commitment that is preventing a family member’s attendance at dinner, then you may end up sacrificing something potentially far more valuable.

It takes lots of unhurried time to nurture our families. Children grow up, and parents grow old. The time you have now will be gone. Make it count!

 

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22 thoughts on “Family meals are critical to your child’s well-being: How to implement them successfully”

  • I love this and could not agree more. I intentionally have family dinners at our kitchen table. I grew up in a household where we wos eat dinner in front of a TV leaving no room for conversation or talking which was a strong driving force for why i seek to spend time with my family at meals. I allow no phones at the dinner table and we go around and talk about the best things that happened to each of us… some of my favorite convos occur at that wooden table! Thanks for sharing!

    • Sounds wonderful! I love the scene in ‘The Blind Side’ where they’re all eating in front of the TV and the football player ends up getting everyone to the table.

  • I couldn’t agree more 🙂 I have so many positive memories of family meals when I was a kid – especially our Sunday family dinners. With my own family it can be tougher at times as my husband didn’t have family dinners growing up so even though he knows it’s important to me he still needs to be reminded at times.

  • We have some of the best conversations when we linger at the table together. The meals don’t have to be fancy; it’s the gathering together that is so important. I like your reminder about celebrating the small successes along the way!

  • This is a great post. I agree that family meals are important. I make sure my whole family sits down to eat dinner together every night because it is soooo important! Plus, they need to understand that phones and the TV can wait an hour so you can talk with your family.

  • Family meal time is so important! We always try to keep meal time at our dining room table so we can all talk and enjoy our meal together! Great tips and insight into an important family tradition!

  • Hey, great post. I really believe it is an essential part of the day family mealtimes r so important. It’s sometimes the only time the family sit and talk

  • This really inspires me. I find myself really rushing in the evenings to get the kids fed, bathed and off the bed. We really need to slow down and just enjoy our time together.

  • We’ve been doing family meals since we got married 8 years ago. I’m so glad we do, because that’s where the real bonding happens. Thanks for sharing!

  • I feel really strongly family meals. We are in a season where my husband is working far from home, so we only have 3 or 4 meals together per week. I try to make the meals we do have special. My kids love to talk and tell stories at the table. It is the main way we connect as a family.

  • I know my mom made a huge effort to provide family meals throughout my entire life, especially when I got older, because it got that much more difficult then. I feel her efforts went a great deal towards some of the things talked about here, ensuring that the family had st least an hour or so each day where they were together. And I think it made a huge difference.

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