By Diane Walton, MSW, LSW, Youth First Inc.
Family meal times are such a valuable experience, with a wide variety of benefits for both children and parents. More shared meals together correlate to greater benefits seen; however, children will benefit from as little as three family meals each week. Shared meals promote healthier eating habits, better grades, and a decrease in rates of depression, substance abuse, and early teenage pregnancy.
Teens who have fewer than three family meals per week are at higher risk of using marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco. Today, only about 30 percent of families have regular family mealtimes. Imagine the benefits we would see if we made family mealtimes a priority three or four times each week!
As a working mom with active children, I understand that planning family meals can feel overwhelming, especially when we have school, sports, and work commitments scheduled throughout the week. Eating together as a family can work with outside commitments and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult. A simple plan and easy recipes can make family meals doable, fun, and something to look forward to.
Ask your children to pick their favorite meals and add these items to the grocery list. They should choose an entrée, side, and vegetable for their meal. It can be as simple as chicken nuggets, green beans, and applesauce for dinner. Another easy option is “breakfast for supper,” which includes fried eggs, toast, sausage or bacon and fruit.
Worried because not all members of the family are present on any given evening? Think outside the box! If it is a challenge to have dinner with the whole family throughout the week, try regular breakfasts on Saturday or brunch every Sunday. Keep in mind that if at least one parent and one child are at home for mealtime, it can be a family meal.
Conversation is an important aspect of family mealtimes. The goal is to be warm and engaging, saving criticisms and deep conversations for another time. Use open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with one word such as “yes,” “no,” or “fine.”
Have fun with silly questions such as, “What is the one superpower you would love to have and why?” Mix in questions that give a little insight into your child’s day like, “Tell me about the best thing that happened to you today” or “What was something that happened today that made you sad or frustrated?”
Parents also benefit from regular family meals. Fathers who are present at meal times have a lower stress index, exhibit greater self-esteem, and are less likely to describe depressive symptoms. Family meals also allow parents to monitor their children’s moods, behavior, and activities in a relaxed, screen-free environment.
Check out the Family Dinner Project at thefamilydinnerproject.org, which is a great FREE resource featuring easy recipes, games, and conversation starters to help bring your family back to the table.