Don’t you love it when someone gives you a book that speaks to you in that moment? For Christmas, I received a book called The Family Dinner, which opened my eyes to how important something as simple as sitting down regularly with our children to eat can be. We in America have become so scheduled and activity-driven that we’re losing the basic family bonding experience of preparing and sharing our meals, and our families are suffering for it. The data regarding family dinner is really intriguing — and empowering. Here are some of the facts:
– Teens who share family dinner five or more times a week are 42% less likely to drink alcohol, 59% less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66% less likely to try marijuana.
– Teens who share frequent family dinners are 3.5x less likely to have abused prescription drugs or an illegal drug other than marijuana.
– Adolescent girls who share frequent family meals are less likely to use diet pills, laxatives, or other extreme measures to control their weight, even five years later.
– Teens who share family meals frequently are 40% more likely to gets A’s and B’s in school.
– Teens who share regular family dinners are less likely to be depressed, are more motivated at school, and have better peer relationships.
– Children ages 7 to 11 who eat meals frequently with their families perform better on school achievement tests.
Isn’t that amazing? Something as simple as sitting down as a family to eat has drastic effects on our children! Being more mindful about our meals also has the potential to result in healthier diets and better nutrition. Here are some important things to consider as you ponder how to implement more family meals into your lifestyle:
– Family meals don’t necessarily have to be at dinner. Family breakfast is always an option and may help everyone get off to school/work on a healthy, happy footing each day.
– It may help to create a standardized, rotating meal plan, thus decreasing the amount of new planning required each week or each shopping trip. For example, “meatless Mondays,” “taco Tuesdays,” “salad Saturdays.” Children often enjoy consistency and may begin to look forward to their favorite meal-day each week.
– The food at the table is what is served. No one has to eat anything they don’t like, but there are no substitutions allowed. Remember, learning how to decline a food politely is actually an important skill. “Oh, that looks so lovely, I’ve just never cared for peas. Thank you anyway.” or “I usually don’t care for cantaloupe, but that looks so good that I’ll try just a bite.”
– There should be a no-technology rule at the family dinner table, i.e. no cell phones, no TV, etc.
– Background music helps to create a relaxed mood and can also help expose children to a variety of music. It can be fun to coordinate music with the particular food being served for the meal (i.e. opera for pasta night, Latin for taco night), or it can keep things fun (if a bit on risky side!) to rotate who gets to select the music each night.
– Each meal should start with some sort of blessing of the table/food/family. The blessing doesn’t have to be religious, just something meaningful for your family. It could even be something you create.
– Something as simple as putting a candle on the table helps to signify the ritual of the meal.
– Everyone is expected to contribute to the conversation at family meals, and it can be helpful to have planned “table talk” in addition to spontaneous conversation. For example, at each meal, everyone might be expected to relate an event from their day, name something they’re grateful for, or share something they’re looking forward to. The family schedule for the following day might be reviewed. Family dinners can also include assignments, such as for each person to share a poem, a book, a new word, or a brief biography about a historical figure. Word games can also be played, or conversation-starter questions can be asked (what is your dream vacation?, name three things you would want to have on a deserted island, etc.)
– As much as possible, involve family members in the preparation and clean-up of the meal and table.
Above all, have fun and enjoy one another! Don’t overwhelm yourself by feeling that the food has to be fancy or perfect. What the studies on family meals certainly show is that the food is only a small part of what makes the family meal so special.
Michelle Bennett, M.D.