The average family mealtime lasts only 20 minutes, but that time spent together builds a foundation for a child’s health and well being. Benefits range from nutrition to language, culture, and even mental health.
Who wouldn’t want to set their children up for less likelihood of substance abuse, greater vocabulary, fewer behavior problems, less likelihood of asthma, less obesity, and better balanced meals with fewer calories than fast food.
Family meals can do all of that? Yes, that is what research shows. Your investment now while your children are young will continue to benefit them as individuals and all of you as a family. As your children reach their teen years, you will be glad that you have created a strong family routine of sharing during mealtimes.
“A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Robin Fox, anthropologist at Rutgers University in TIME Magazine.
Family Mealtime Education
At mealtime, parents share information about food and family without the children really realizing it. Just in passing, as kids ask “Why are we eating this?” we talk about our choices. Sometimes we might tell children why one choice is more healthy than another. Sometimes we might help them understand why we need quick meals on busy days.
My children love homemade rolls. They would love to have rolls every day at every meal, but this is a food that takes time to prepare. So, this is a Sunday routine because that is the day when we have more time. As they help prepare the rolls from live yeast, they learn the science of baking painlessly. I’ve also noticed over time that they smile just at the smell of baking bread. Baking bread means family and home for my children, and I think that is a great start.
When we eat foods from our own childhoods, we share information about multiple generations of our families. I like talking to my children about the foods my mother and my grandmother made. This often leads to talking about where our families came from, since food traditions are often passed down through mothers. We no longer eat a lot of heavy German food passed down from my mother’s mother’s family, but, when we do eat those old foods on occasion, I talk about how and why my family came to North America.
If my children moan about helping prepare meals, I like to remind them that by the time my mother was their age, she was in charge of making dinner for herself and four brothers. Sometimes this just quiets them into helping, but other times they ask more questions. Why was grandma cooking? (She was home first while her mother was working and her brothers were working on the farm.) What did she cook? (She told me the meal she cooked most often was pepper pot soup.) Can we make that? (Certainly!)
In addition to the benefit of healthier eating for families that sit down and eat together, the rituals families develop create a family identity and a closeness for all.
Dinner Time Fun
Here are a few quick tips to keep family dinner time fun.
- Keep the meal stress free. Don’t spend more time than you have preparing a meal. Save elaborate meals for days when you have time to spend.
- Involve children in meal preparation. This does take a bit more time, but the long-term investment is worth it. Children take pride in the work they’ve done—and they may find themselves less picky when they’ve helped make the food.
- For young children, make the mealtime experience visual. You can do this simply in the way you arrange their food.
- Don’t focus on foods your child doesn’t like. If you serve a food you know your child hesitates to eat, start a conversation about something completely different as a diversion. Involve the child in your stories to keep the focus off the food itself.
- If your child is a fast eater, keeping them involved in conversation can help them understand that they are still valued at the meal even when the food is finished. A family meal, after all, is about far more than food.
I don’t usually suggest that you read an academic paper, but the one I read in preparation for today’s post is just fascinating because it reviews studies on family mealtime then goes on to make recommendations for public policy based on the irrefutable benefits. If you need to be convinced how very important it is to start sharing mealtimes with your children while they are young, read this article.
-  Barbara H. Fiese and Marlene Schwartz, “Reclaiming the Family Table: Mealtimes and Child Health and Wellbeing,” Social Policy Report 22/4 (2008).
To read similar conclusions in a more popular format, see TIME Magazine.
- Nancy Gibbs, “The Magic of the Family Meal,” TIME Magazine, June 4, 2006.