I’ve always liked the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want”; sometimes known as “The Thanksgiving Picture” depicting a family gathered as grandma and grandpa placed the turkey on the table. I hope you all had time over the holidays to gather your own family around the table. But what about the rest of the year?
Families today lead very busy lives. Driving kids to afterschool and evening activities, parents and kids on different schedules, and being too tired to fix an evening meal are some reasons parents give up on the idea of a family meal.
What’s so important about sitting down together as a family?
Many studies have been done on family meal time. Here are some results.
Family mealtime had these health benefits:
- More fruits and vegetables were consumed
- Higher intake of important nutrients
- Less unhealthy foods were consumed
- Portion size was controlled (an average of 60 percent fewer calories than a restaurant meal)
- Family members ate a wider variety of foods
- Family members learned important hygiene lessons like washing hands before eating
Family mealtimes had these social-emotional benefits:
- Family members reported an increased feeling of family support
- Children chose more positive peer influences as well as more positive adult role models
- Family members had a more positive view of the future
- Children’s vocabulary increased
- Older children engaged in less risky behavior
- Children were more motivated and engaged in school
- Children had better table manners
Family mealtimes had these economic benefits:
- Time savings – When you eat out, you spend time driving to the restaurant, waiting to be served, waiting for food, eating and driving home.
- Lower cost – A restaurant meal can be two to four times more expensive than eating at home.
Try increasing the number of family meals slowly. If you are not sitting down together at all, try one meal per week. It could be breakfast, a weekend lunch or dinner. If actually making the meal has you stressed, buy takeout or a prepared meal from the grocery story, but serve it like a family meal. Set the table and take the food out of the packages and put it on serving dishes. Then sit down together.
Turn off technology
While technology has given us more connections to the outside world, it has decreased the connections to our family groups. Families are divided by technology. Kids are getting more information from technology sources without parental influence, wisdom or filters. Turn off technology during mealtime.
Make mealtime fun and interesting
Mealtime should not be a time for criticizing, arguing or airing complaints and problems. Instead, ask each person to share the highlight of their day, something funny they experienced or their plans for the evening. Make “conversation cards” with interesting questions each person answers or situations that allow each person to give their opinion. Discuss the food served, where it came from and how it got to the table. If you have family members with active temperaments who have trouble sitting, consider giving them a swivel chair to allow them to move during mealtime.
Get everyone involved
Take turns setting the table, clearing the table, and loading the dishwasher or helping with dishes. Ask one child to be responsible for making a centerpiece for the table each week using things from around the house, including toys!
Get everyone involved in menu planning. Look for recipes in books or online, and bring children to the grocery store. Try pairing mom or dad with a younger child, or having two older children work together to plan and prepare a meal. Start a small, indoor herb garden and use the fresh herbs in your cooking.
Get creative with family participation recipes
Recipes that allow each family member to help in the preparation and then choose their own foods are usually popular.
Crock Pot Soup or Stew: In the evening, each family member chooses a meat, vegetable or herb to cut up — chicken, carrots, potatoes, kale, celery, mushrooms, green pepper, parsley or whatever they like. In the morning put everything in the crock pot with chicken broth or tomato sauce as a base, and salt and pepper. When everyone gets home, you can add pasta, rice or barley for the last hour of cooking.
Family Salad: Provide the salad base of greens. Each family member chooses an ingredient to prepare — cut up vegetables, drain and rinse black or white beans, cut up cooked chicken, olive, peppers, etc. Provide low-fat dressing and allow each family member to build his or her own salad.
Pasta Night: Make a batch of your favorite pasta. Provide several sauce choices (tomato, pesto, Alfredo) and at least one protein choice (cooked chicken, meatballs, cooked shrimp). Let kids sauté veggies, grate cheese or put olives in bowls. Now each family member can build their own pasta plate.
Family mealtime has so many benefits; it’s worth the effort to make it happen. I hope you will take small steps to start making family mealtime a priority in your home!