The Family Dinner: Nutrition and Nurturing

Why it's so important to eat together -- and how to find the time

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 04, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

My fondest memories are times spent lingering around the kitchen table with family and friends, sharing meals and lively conversation.

When I was a child, my parents upheld the ritual of family dinners. The dinner table was revered, with rules prohibiting lecturing, discipline, curlers, bathrobes, undershirts -- anything less than proper attire and behavior. My siblings and I grew up cherishing the undivided attention and love that accompanied the ritual, as well as Mom's homey "cream-of-mushroom-soup" meals.

The tradition has now been passed along to my children, who value and look forward to family meals.

Connections and Communication

Sitting down for a family meal is a symbol of love, connections, and communication. Family meals reflect involved parents, who want the opportunity both to talk and to listen to what their kids have to say. It's very comforting to children to know that their parents want to know what's going on in their lives.

Mealtimes can provide quality time for the whole household, fostering family unity and trust, and providing a setting for moral and intellectual discussions that reflect family values. Family meals encourage communication skills, such as patient listening and expressing opinions respectfully. Chatting around the dinner table encourages kids to talk to their parents about sensitive issues. This is also a time to reinforce family traditions and cultural heritage.

Family meals may actually enhance the emotional well-being of teens. A study reported in the 2003 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that adolescents who frequently sat down to family meals had better grades, less depression, and were less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana than kids who ate with their families less than twice a week.

Power Up the Plate

But the benefits of family meals go beyond the warm fuzzy feelings and good communication that happen when we dine together.

Studies verify what some might consider common sense: families that eat together eat more healthfully, consuming less fast food, soft drinks, and fat and more fruits and vegetables. And developing good eating habits early on can help your children be healthier for the rest of their lives.

Making simple changes, one at a time, is the best way to get your family to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fat. Start with working more salads and vegetables into your meals. Then try a vegetarian meal once a week, focusing on foods already familiar to your family like chili or frittatas. Be creative, and remember it may take a few tries before a new food is accepted.

Preparing meals at home us much more economical gives parents control over both the quality and quantity of food. Sensible portion sizes need to be taught at home so kids don't grow up thinking supersized is normal.

Many adults who struggle with their weight never really learned how to identify hunger and fullness. Help your children understand how to eat until they're comfortably satisfied but not full by letting them serve themselves as early as age 5.

Dismiss the instinct to encourage your kids to clean their plates. This only teaches them to follow visual cues when eating instead of tuning in to their sense of satiety.

Be a Role Model

Parents play a big role in shaping children's eating habits. When parents eat a variety of foods that are low in fat and sugar and high in fiber, children learn to like these foods as well.

Your commitment to a healthy diet will encourage your children to recognize the importance of good nutrition. This can carry over into settings where kids make their own choices. If your child eats lunch at school, review the weekly lunch menu with your child and make suggestions for healthier options.

I am proud to say that the children of this dietitian have gotten the message and for the most part prefer healthful food. When my son was in college he negotiated an increase in his food allowance to help pay for the added costs of more nutritious fare at fast-food and neighborhood restaurants.

Remember that mealtime is an excellent time to teach your children proper behavior as well as good nutrition. Actions speak louder than words, so teach your children by showing instead of telling. Be a role model for good eating habits and good table manners.

Lifestyles of the Busy and Harried

Most families are coping with long workdays, after-school activities, and otherwise hectic lifestyles. Too often, family meals are the first thing to get squeezed out of the schedule.

Don't think that dining together has to be a throwback to days of June Cleaver. Family meals don't have to be fancy; they can be made up of easy dishes that you enjoy together a few times a week. Family meals are really about uninterrupted time together, when phones go unanswered, the television is turned off, and the conversation flows.

Here are some tips to help you turn the dream of relaxed family meals into a reality:

  • Establish a minimum number of family meals per week that suits your lifestyle. Start slowly, and build up to a number that works with everyone's schedule.
  • Be prepared. Keep ingredients for healthful meals on hand so that preparation is easy and less time-consuming. Be sure to include lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep it simple. Family meals don't need to be elaborate, just balanced, with plenty of healthful ingredients. Make meals that appeal to everyone in the family.
  • Get the family involved in preparing meals and setting the table. If your children don't learn basic kitchen skills, they'll regret it by the time they're off to college.
  • Cook a big pot of something delicious during the weekend for easy meal prep on busy weekdays. Or try a crock-pot dish that you put together before leaving for work in the morning, and come home to the delicious smell of a cooked meal.
  • Picking up take-out, ordering pizza, or going out to eat still counts as a family meal. Even when you don't cook at home, take uninterrupted time to eat and enjoy one another's company.
  • Make mealtime enjoyable so children will treasure the ritual. Leave the serious discussions and disciplinary action for some other time. Family meals are for healthy nourishment, comfort, and support.
  • Share the family ritual with friends and extended family members. Kids love to eat dinner at their friend's homes, and often discover new foods that way.
  • Be flexible. Toddlers and young children have a tough time sitting still and will only last a short time at the family meal.
  • Play soothing music, put flowers on the table, or light a candle to create a relaxing environment.
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