The Meeting Place

How eating together affects children

by gina roberts-grey

With the busy schedules and lifestyles of today’s family, sharing a meal together seems more like a chore or fantasy than a regular occurrence.

Between shuttling kids off to sport practices, running your household, and coordinating a variety of schedules, gathering your family to eat together once a day -- every day -- begins to feel like you’re adding another daunting task.

Over the past two decades the number of meals shared together as a family has drastically reduced. Our families are quite different than they were years ago. Today’s families are blended, bustling and driven. Due to the increased extra-curricular activities, co-parents sharing custody, and both parents working off shift from each other, only 1 out 4 families in the United States eats one meal a day together.

Passing through the drive-thru in between events or in route to a meeting has become a luxury as well as a necessity for our busy families. Many of our family members pass each other on the way to the microwave and eat separately or in shifts.

If your family doesn’t have the time or chance to consistently ‘reconnect’ it is harder to identify when a family member has something on his mind. Your child may be struggling with a peer at school or over an upcoming math test. He may feel out of place on the playground or not know how to approach you for advice with a problem.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who studied 527 adolescents found a difference in the social adjustment of 75% of the youths who regularly shared meals with their family. These children were more comfortable talking to their parents, soliciting help from siblings and more confident when communicating with peers.

A study documented in the journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has shown that children who are raised in households that participate in family meals at least four times a week are less likely to experiment with smoking, alcohol or drugs. These children also exhibit higher self-esteem and have a lower rate of developing anxiety or depression.

After digesting the statistics and knowing the effects of eating together, busy parents may still find it tough to break bread as a family. Using a few creative and easily overlooked ideas will help your family find a way to share a meal and stay in touch with each other.

Set realistic expectations for family meals. Not every dinner has to be a seven course, gourmet meal. Have a flexible and spontaneous approach to family meals when necessary. If you’re home too late to put together a family dinner, consider scheduling family breakfasts. If you know one night a week your entire family won’t be home until after dinner, plan a family dessert treat or share a family sized bowl of popcorn. Bringing home food to eat as a family spares preparation time and offers the same benefit as if you made a meal from scratch. Remember that conversation and time spent together are more important than the timing of the meal.

You’ll be surprised at what you learn. Use meal time with your family for your children to gain insight into your day in addition to you inquiring about theirs. Does your child know what you do at work, in the yard, or at your volunteer position? Do you know who he sits next to in math, plays with at recess or what his favorite aspect of school is? Time spent eating together gives your child the chance to be the family’s expert on dinosaurs or ocean life, and the chance to learn you have a guarded family secret on how to grow a prized pumpkin.

Recruit help to prepare the meal and you’ll boost their pride. Inviting your family into the kitchen to help you set the table, chop the salad or monitor the microwave adds multiple values to your family’s meal. Your family will better understand some of the preparation associated with putting dinner together. They will also enjoy the responsibility of helping prepare what everyone will eat and will take pride in being part of the process. You’ll share casual and impromptu time together where everyone feels free to be silly, serious or express whatever mood he’s feeling. An added benefit is children who share in preparing their meals are more inclined to eat healthy and develop good nutritional eating habits.

Stay positive and approachable in order to stay involved in their lives. You don’t want your family to dread eating together. Try to avoid using time spent eating as a family as an opportunity to administer punishments, discuss unpleasant behavior or scold about schoolwork. Don’t allow your children to tease each other during meals. Even playful joking can create tension that prevents a child from opening up at the table. Create a ‘safe talk zone’ at the table for everyone to be able to freely share their feelings, concerns or ideas. Knowing he can talk to the family in a safe and nonjudgmental environment about a problem or concern encourages your child to ask for help.

Build minds as well as healthy bodies. Dinnertime conversation exposes your family to a broader vocabulary than if you ate in shifts, in solitude or in front of the television. The chance to listen to conversation between adults gives your kids the chance to expand their vocabulary and to ask for the meaning of words they don’t understand. They’ll also gain insight into learning how people interact and communicate with each other in different age ranges and genders.

Sharing meals together provides the chance to strengthen family relationships and a forum to discuss a variety of topics and issues that affect your family. You’ll foster lasting memories and traditions that your children are certain to cherish as adults. You will also enjoy the much needed opportunity to spend quality time with your family. SFM

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance wirter who often writes on the subjects of families and children.