Make Time for Family Meals

Family meals are becoming a thing of the past. During the early and mid-20th century, family meals, especially in the evenings, were commonplace. In America, as we become more and more starved for time, fewer and fewer families are taking time to sit down together for meals. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, slightly more than a quarter (28%) of adults with children under the age of 18 report that their families eat dinner together at home seven nights per week – down from 37% in 1997. Another quarter (24%) report that they eat together three or fewer nights per week (1).

While the occurrence of family mealtimes continues to follow a downward trend, research continues to show the benefits of meals as a family. Eating meals a family yields stronger relationships, improved health, higher self-esteem, and improved academic achievement. Some studies have even found that children who eat meals with their families have a lower incidence of depression, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. Family meals provide structure and exposure to a wider variety of foods. In addition, eating meals as a family has been shown to aid in the development of manners and a more extensive vocabulary. According to a study published in the June 2011 issue of Pediatrics, eating meals as a family 3 or more times per week reduces the odds of overweight by 12%, eating unhealthy foods by 20%, and disordered eating by 35%. This study also identified that the number of family meals consumed per week was negatively associated with teens’ risk for eating disorders. A common belief is that most teens prefer to avoid meals with their families, but this study found that “adolescents . . . would most like their parents to prepare healthy meals at home. It seems that there is . . . receptivity in participating in family mealtimes, eating healthy foods, and learning about nutrition.” For children and adolescents with disordered eating, family meals help to provide structure and an opportunity for parents to identify signs that could lead to eating disorders (2, 3, 4).

Making time in our busy lives to sit down for meals as a family takes effort, and each family member must play their part in making mealtimes a priority. It is important to develop a plan and to do so thoughtfully. First, it is important to set realistic goals. Choose which meals each week everyone can sit down for a meal as a family. Be sure to consider all activities, work schedules, and weekend plans. There is no magic number, but some research suggests that families who eat meals other 4 to 5 evenings per week reap the benefits (3). Here are some additional ideas as you develop your family’s weekly family mealtime plan:

• Involve the whole family in planning. Let family members weigh in with their preferences.
• Consider assigning each family member a meal to plan each week. Set guidelines – each meal should include source of protein, carbohydrate, fat, fruit and vegetables.
• Involve the whole family in aspects of preparation to help develop their cooking skills.
• Consider theme nights like Taco Tuesday or Spaghetti Sunday and build them into your family’s traditions.
• Be sure to include desserts in meal planning and allow for eating out occasionally. It is important to teach children moderation in these areas.
• If time is an obstacle, opt for more pre-made meal options and prepare certain items in bulk, and eat them throughout the week.

Once you have developed your family’s plan, write it out and post it in a visible place like on the refrigerator or on a chalkboard in the kitchen so everyone is on the same page. Once your meals are planned for the week ahead, create an organized grocery list, and once you have supplies, stay organized. Consider utilizing time on the weekends to prepare meals or certain meal components.

During meals, it is important to focus on conversation and eliminating distractions by turning off the television and asking family members to avoid bringing electronics to the table. It can be challenging to come up with ideas for dinner table conversation, especially with teenagers, who tend to be particularly challenging to engage. Looking for ideas for conversation starters and more mealtime conversation tips? The Family Dinner Project is a great resource!

by Sally Kochtanek, MS, RD, LD
Nutrition Manager
McCallum Place Eating Disorder Treatment Center, Kansas City

References:
1. Kiefer, Heather. (2004, January 20). Empty Seats: Fewer Families Eat Together. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/10336/empty-seats-fewer-families-eat-together.aspx
2. Hammons, Amber & Fiese, Barbara. (2011) “Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional healthy of children and adolescents?” Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics. 127(6).
3. Fischel, Anne. FAQ. Retrieved from: http://thefamilydinnerproject.org/resources/faq/
4. The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Multiple articles referenced from: www.eatright.org