- Written by Elizabeth Pantley, photo: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock
Is dinnertime around your house sporadic? Does it change almost daily based on your busy schedule shuttling kids and adults around to school, work, sports and lessons? Do you sometimes eat dinner at the table together, but more often have a kind of a free-for-all - everyone grabbing something and eating on the run? It is very worthwhile to make more of an effort to have a daily family dinner together. Here’s why and how.
There are lots of great reasons for a family to eat dinner together, especially when it's a busy family. Many studies have been done on the ritual of a family dinner, and here are some of the advantages that have been uncovered:
Families who routinely eat dinner together eat more whole grains, vegetables and fruits than those whose members eat on their own. A planned sit-down event reaps a healthier diet for all.
Children who eat with the family are more adventurous with food, probably because they see others eating different things.
Family mealtime may be a key to a better future for your children in many ways. Kids who grow up with this routine are less likely to have eating disorders and more likely to eat a balanced diet. Children who sit at the table daily with their parents are less likely to experiment with smoking, drinking or drugs; less likely to suffer from depression; and more likely to be better students. The Journal of Adolescent Health even reported that teenagers who ate meals with their family on a regular basis engaged in less sexual activity than teens who didn't sit down to family meals. Another study showed that teenagers who share regular time with their families have closer relationships with their parents, which leads to more conversation and better decision-making.
Doctors Marino and Betkus studied the value of the family dinner. They reported that “Oprah Winfrey conducted a Family Dinner Experiment. Five families volunteered to accept the challenge to eat dinner together every night for a month, staying at the table for a half-hour each time. As part of the experiment, all family members kept journals to record their feelings about the experience.
At first, sharing meals was a chore for many families, and the minutes at the table dragged on. But by the end of the month, the families were happy and planned to continue dining together most evenings, if not every night. When the families appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show at the end of the experiment, the greatest surprise to the parents was how much their children treasured the time with their parents at the table.”
If a family dinner custom is new to your household, you may want to consider these tips to ease everyone into a fresh and rewarding routine:
- Begin by picking just one or two nights for family dinner, and aim to build the schedule from there. Choose less hectic days when everyone is home at the same time.
- Eat early enough so that everyone isn’t hungry beforehand and filling up on snacks, but not so late so that people are starving and grumpy.
- Choose meals that everyone likes, or at least have one food on the table that each person enjoys.
- Include dessert after dinner, but here's the secret: make it a small serving so that it's just a bit of sweetness and not enough to cause your children to pass on dinner foods so they can “save room” for dessert every night. In addition, don't make sugary dessert a part of every dinner; your children will come to expect it. Instead, alternate sweet treats with fruit, frozen yogurt or cheese as the dessert offering.
- Make mealtime long enough but not too long. Lingering can bring boredom or fussing.
- Carefully guide the conversation so that it's lighthearted and enjoyable. Steer away from any negatives, even those pertaining to mealtime manners. Until the routine is in place, you want every dinner hour to be a happy experience.
- Encourage everyone to be there for your regular family dinners, but don't be forceful or demanding. If someone has work, school, sports or a music conflict, simply gather everyone else together on that day.
If one parent's work schedule conflicts with an early, child-friendly dinner hour, then work around it. You might eat the meal early and then save dessert for when the parent arrives, or you may want to shelve the idea of a family dinner in favor of a family breakfast. At a minimum, gather everyone together for a meal on non-workdays and find other times to spend as a group, such as taking a walk, sharing a board game or playing yard games outside.
Elizabeth is the author of The No-Cry Solution series of parenting books. Watch for the release of her new book: The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat - and Eat Healthy. (Excerpted from The No Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat – and Eat Healthy by Elizabeth Pantley.) For more information, visit www.pantley.com/elizabeth/.