We sit at the table for meal times. We do not eat TV dinners, and we rarely ever eat prepared, out of the box, or canned foods. I prepare healthy whole foods from scratch for most meals. I understand there are times that this can’t happen, but that is the exception rather than the norm. I don’t believe that eating pizza or other fast food once in a while will kill you, on the other hand, studies done by the Weston Price Foundation indicate a diet of refined flour, sugar and other processed foods on a daily basis WILL kill you, and faster than you might think. In fact, I would assert that an everyday diet of corndogs, macaroni and cheese out of the box, pizza, and hamburgers are worse for you than smoking and alcohol consumption.
In Papua New Guinea before the advancement of modern society brought processed foods to that area, when people still ate a natural diet, even though almost the entire population were heavy smokers, (and most began smoking as children) modern diseases were relatively rare, even diseases that modern medicine associates with smoking. It wasn’t until after the structure of society changed to include modern convenience foods that this changed. Now, what does that tell you? I am certainly not promoting smoking or saying that it is ok, especially with modern cigarettes and all the additives in the tobacco – which are about as far away as you can get from a natural substance, even after starting out with a plant. Imagine how much more healthy they would have been without the tobacco. (I will talk more about this in step 5)
The main thing I want to address in this article is the proven benefit of eating together around the table for mealtimes, without the distraction of the television or radio. When families eat together, it gives parents a chance to talk to their kids about what is going on in their lives and provides a natural setting for discussions on things happening in the news, drug awareness, stranger danger, or any number of other topics that might have an impact on your family.
When a parent takes the time to prepare wholesome food, I also believe (even though they may not show it) kids see that as an expression of love. Instead of opening a can of Spaghetti O’s, slopping it into a bowl, and then throwing it in the microwave and leaving them to eat alone in front of the TV set while you munch on something in front of your computer, consider taking an active interest in your family by talking with them as you all sit around the dinner table. This is a great way to get to know your kids. You might be surprised (maybe not) at what can come up at the table.
According to research done on the subject, in their article Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents, (see section at the end for further reading) “young people whose families routinely eat meals together spend more time on homework and reading for pleasure. Frequent family meals have also been related to better nutritional intake and a decreased risk for unhealthy weight control practices, substance use, sexual intercourse, and suicidal involvement.”
Also, in a report written by Sandy Procter, PhD, RD, LD for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service entitled Everyone to the Table: Family Meals Serve Us Well she found that “Very young children who share family meals show improved literacy skills when compared with children who did not have family meal opportunities.4 Children and adolescents who share meals with their parents have improved food habits – they tend to eat more fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, and less fried food and soft drinks at meals eaten with their families.5 Older adults who share meals with family and friends benefit not only by eating better, but also from the increased socialization. Intergenerational family meals help preserve and pass along family culture, traditions and values.” And also that “how often a family eats dinner together is a powerful indicator of whether a teen is likely to smoke, drink or use drugs and whether the teen is likely to perform well academically. Family meals help protect adolescents from developing disordered eating behaviors, according to a study done in 2004. Another study found that efforts to encourage and include adolescents in family meals and food preparation not only affect the child or teen as an individual, but also their interactions with family, school performance and relationships in the community and beyond. In other words, family meals help improve youths’ diet quality and their school and psychological performance.”
In The Family Dinner: Nutrition and Nurturing, Why it’s so important to eat together – and how to find the time by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, she gives a list of tips on how you can make time for family meals:
Establish a minimum number of family meals per week that suits your lifestyle. Start slowly, and build up to a number that works with everyone’s schedule.
Be prepared. Keep ingredients for healthful meals on hand so that preparation is easy and less time-consuming. Be sure to include lots of fruits and vegetables.
Keep it simple. Family meals don’t need to be elaborate, just balanced, with plenty of healthful ingredients. Make meals that appeal to everyone in the family.
Get the family involved in preparing meals and setting the table. If your children don’t learn basic kitchen skills, they’ll regret it by the time they’re off to college.
Cook a big pot of something delicious during the weekend for easy meal prep on busy weekdays. Or try a crock-pot dish that you put together before leaving for work in the morning, and come home to the delicious smell of a cooked meal.
Picking up take-out, ordering pizza, or going out to eat still counts as a family meal. Even when you don’t cook at home, take uninterrupted time to eat and enjoy one another’s company. (A note from HealthHeretic: For the benefits of family health and happiness, try to keep takeout to a minimum. Her other meal suggestions are much better, but require planning. We avoid takeout on a regular basis because you get healthier food when you cook meals at home, not to mention that eating out regularly puts a huge strain on the family budget. The #1 cause of divorce is financial tension. I agree that for sometimes, if it means a difference between eating together or not eating together, takeout is better than nothing, but an investment in meal planning time is well worth the effort and may save you a big headache later.)
Make mealtime enjoyable so children will treasure the ritual. Leave the serious discussions and disciplinary action for some other time. Family meals are for healthy nourishment, comfort, and support.
Share the family ritual with friends and extended family members. Kids love to eat dinner at their friend’s homes, and often discover new foods that way.
Be flexible. Toddlers and young children have a tough time sitting still and will only last a short time at the family meal.
Play soothing music, put flowers on the table, or light a candle to create a relaxing environment. (A note from HealthHeretic: Make the atmosphere relaxing yes, but I think this could easily be overdone. If you try to do too much when you are trying to save time and just bring everyone together, making things too fancy will just cause more stress in your life, especially if you have small children. Maybe it’s better to keep things like fancy decorations and candles for special occasions.)
At family mealtime what you want to do is focus on nurturing. Nurture the body with healthy whole foods, and nurture the mind with positive family interaction. Boost self esteem and confidence through the meal preparation process. For example, allow a small child to help set the table or other small things, and allow an older child to prepare simple dishes, teaching them along the way until they are able to prepare more and more complex recipes until they can create an entire meal by themselves. Finally, nurture by showing interest in every person in the family through conversation and by asking questions about how each family member’s day went, what they have to accomplish as far as homework or planned activities, notes that were sent home about upcoming activities for school, etc. Even a teenager can be a pleasant dinner companion. I see it happen every day and so can you!
Then when you are finished eating, involve the whole family in the clean up process (this is easiest, just like anything else, if you start out when they are small and still think washing dishes is fun!) Not only will this take some of the burden off of the parents, but being able to do this will give the kids a sense of pride in having done a good job and having been able to provide a needed service to other members of the family – everyone needs to feel needed and important!
For Further Reading:
Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents by Marla E. Eisenberg, ScD, MPH; Rachel E. Olson, MS; Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD; Mary Story, PhD, RD and Linda H. Bearinger, PhD, MS
Everyone to the Table: Family Meals Serve Us Well Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service
Family Meals Matter
Family Mealtime Is More than Just Sitting at the Table: New Study In Journal of the American Dietetic Association Reveals Nutritional Benefits by the American Dietetic Association
Cooking for Your Family: Meal Planning 101
Meal-Planning Strategy for Quick, Easy Dinners Every Night