We instinctively know it is good for our children to eat a meal around a table with the rest of the family. However, it is good to be reminded that it really is worth the effort.
There is even evidence-based data that supports the benefits of family meals. They enable good behavior without having to preach it.
It is about coming together, communicating, role modeling, and of course nourishing young bodies.
Even on the busiest nights, following through with dinner around the table is more than sustenance — it is preventive.
When you gather the family for a meal, you are helping your kids get better grades, avoid substance abuse, have table manners, improve their communication skills and eat better now and in the future.
What a deal, all that prevention, and all you had to do was put a meal on the table. It almost sounds too good to be true.
A goal according to experts is to pull this off at least five to six times a week. It can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. It means pulling up the chairs, clearing off the table and turning off the TV. Eating at the counter on stools does not really enable the same type of communication but is better than eating on the sofa.
Flexibility is important too, so keep in mind that eating together can be a picnic after practice, dinner in a restaurant or even, occasionally, pizza in front of the TV watching a favorite family show (the kids will love this broken rule). It is about enjoying eating and each other at the same time.
If you are having problems doing this on a regular basis, here are some suggestions to enable this family function:
Set realistic goals. If you only eat together once or twice a week plan for one or two more times each week.
Be organized by planning meals ahead of time. A balanced meal can include three to five food groups. Mix it up between protein, starch, vegetable, dairy and/or fruit. Have the kids help with the week’s menu. Like most families, you will end up rotating eight to ten menus.
Make sure everyone knows what time dinner is and expect them to be there. If someone has a prior commitment, save a plate of food for him or her. Everyone should be eating the same foods; short order cooking is not allowed. Engage the kids in preparation, table setting and clean up.
Meal time will be pleasant and rewarding if conversation remains positive.
This is not a time for criticism or negative communication. You will be amazed at the conversation that develops. More information will be volunteered than all the prying in the world.
You will learn about their day, what matters to them and who their friends are and are not. Experiences are communicated that you would otherwise never be aware of.
Plus this is an opportunity for you to share some of your day’s experiences. They will even appreciate what you have to offer.
You should expect good table manners but should not count on a big thank you for your efforts. Your reward will be apparent down the road.
One day you’ll find yourself sitting back enjoying a conversation between siblings when someone decides they like cooked carrots after all.
Michele Lucas is a registered dietitian at Providence St. Mary Medical Center and the mother of two children.