Family Mealtime: How Common Is It in Your Home?

“Dinner’s ready. Come and get it!”  How often are those words called out in your home?  Can you remember the last time your family sat down and enjoyed dinner together? Our grandchildren’s daily schedules are filled to the brim with music lessons, soccer practice, play rehearsals and the work schedules of our teens. We know through research that there are great benefits for our grandchildren. But how do you go about making family meals a common occurrence without it seeming like a real chore?

In today’s fast-paced world, it can be tough—even nearly impossible—to plan, prepare and share family meals, and then be relaxed enough to enjoy them. Try these steps to schedule them and make them enjoyable for everyone who pulls up a chair.

1. PLAN - Look over the calendar to choose a time when everyone can be there. Father’s Day is on our heals. It would be the perfect day to have a family meal with everyone contributing something. Figure out which obstacles are getting in the way — busy schedules, no supplies in the house, no time to cook. Ask for the family’s ideas on how these roadblocks can be removed. For instance, maybe your teen grandchild clerks in the neighborhood grocery store and can buy the food. If time to cook is the problem, try having the family do some prep work or even completely prepare a dish ahead of time and freeze it.

2. PREPARE - Once you have all your supplies on hand, recruiting younger grandkids can mean a little extra work, but it’s often worth it. Have the younger kids put plates on the table, toss the salad, pour beverages, fold the napkins or be a “taster”. Older grandchildren can get ingredients, wash produce, mix, stir and serve. Consider assigning the teen grandkids a night to cook, with you as the helper. For those nights, give them free reign to do the shopping and choose the foods they want to make. Does that sound like fun? The conversation around the table that night is sure to be a lively discussion of their choices for the meal.

3. ENJOY - Make your time at the table pleasant, a chance for everyone to decompress from the day and enjoy being together. They may be starving, but have the grands wait until everyone is seated before digging in. Create a moment of calm before the meal begins to give a chance to say a few words of thanks, show appreciation for the cooks, wish everyone a good meal or raise a glass of milk in a toast. You’re setting the mood and modeling good manners and patience at the same time.

There are good reasons to make family meals a habit and a tradition that your children will always remember about growing up. Here are just a few of the many well-researched reasons to make family meals a regular and anticipated event:

Reason #1:  Helps your families stay connected

Conversations during the meal provide opportunities for the family to bond, plan, connect and learn from one another. Ask everyone to share their favorite part or biggest challenge of the day. Share your news too. Discuss an activity the family can do together and then put it on the calendar. Family meals foster warmth, security and love as well as feelings of belonging. It can be a unifying experience for all.

Reason #2:  Expands their world…one food at a time

Grandchildren can be encouraged to try new foods during family meals. Remember that it can take 8-10 exposures to a new food before it is accepted so be patient. Trying a new food expands your grandchild’s knowledge, experience and skill. Use your imagination and make a simple meal from another country. Select a new vegetable from your local farmer’s market or have your children select a new recipe from one of your cookbooks, a web site or the newspaper.

Reason #3: Prevents destructive behaviors

Research shows that frequent family dinners (five or more a week), are associated with lower rates of smoking, drinking and illegal drug use in pre-teens and teenagers when compared to families that eat together two or fewer times per week. Even as older children’s schedules get more complicated, it is important to make an effort to eat meals together. Scheduling is a must.

Reason #4: Improves grades

Children do better in school when they eat more meals with their parents and grandparents. Teens that eat dinner four or more times per week with their families have higher academic performance compared with those who eat with their families two or fewer times per week.

Reason # 5: Saves money

Meals purchased away from home cost two to four times more than meals prepared at home. At the present time the restaurant industry’s share of the total food dollar is more than 46%. Due to scheduling, commitments and activities, families eat out several times each week.

It’s time to bring the family back to the dinner table. Sharing dinner together gives everyone a sense of identity. It can help ease day-to-day conflicts, as well as establish traditions and memories that can last a lifetime and be passed down through the generations.

Links for More Ideas:

Kids Health Web site – Family Meals

http://kidshealth.org/parent/food/general/family_meals.html

Purdue University – Family Meals spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S

http://www.cfs.purdue.edu/cff/documents/promoting_meals/spellsuccessfactsheet.pd

Fresh from Florida Kids Web site – This Vegetable and Cheese Quesadilla Demonstration shows how one meal can be prepared for parents and children of all ages, all the way down to infants.

http://www.freshfromfloridakids.com/videos/flash/Quesadillas_Web.htm

Janice Wade-Miller is a nutrition educator in Tallahassee, Florida. She has earned her bachelors and masters degrees in Food and Nutrition from Florida State University. In her role as a health educator, she has assisted all age groups, from young children to senior citizens in learning about good nutrition, health and food safety. Her email address is jmiller@iamforkids.org.

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