Eating regular family meals has many positive benefits for the family and healthy outcomes for children.
Studies confirm that adolescents whose families provide meal frequency as well as a positive meal-time atmosphere are more likely to have healthy eating patterns and less likely to have eating disorders as well as reducing several at-risk and addictive behaviors (see "Benefits of the Dinner Table Ritual" New York Times, May 3, 2005).
Families have very busy lives, and finding time (not to mention energy) for food preparation is difficult. We just need to remind ourselves that our short-ranged behaviors and priorities can have serious consequences in the long run. Those who are determined to make improvements will do so.
Small changes can have monumental results. Consider these:
Do you find that you rarely sit down together to eat? Perhaps make it possible to eat once or twice a week together. If you eat together once or twice a week, make room in your schedule for three or four.
Do you find that dinnertime is a difficult time of day to bring everyone together? Perhaps plan for breakfasts to offer the benefits of the "dinner table" ritual instead. However, there is a threat that it might become a "grab and go" instead of a sit-down-together unhurried experience, so be careful.
Do you find that fixing food at 6 p.m. is the "meltdown" time of day for you and your children? No wonder we jump in the car and head off to Wendy's. Try changing your meal-time planning with ideas such as:
Using crockpot or slow-cook dishes
Cooking in larger quantities and freezing dinners ahead of time to be reheated easily later
Having your children help with the preparation to get the food on the table faster, making the time together more enjoyable and teaching essential life skills to family members.
Yes, it's preferable that the meals are home-cooked and that vegetables, whole grains and fruits prevail over other non-essential foods. But the bigger concern is the quality of interaction at that time of day than the food itself.
Making pancakes and sausage can be a great option for dinner once a week, especially for picky eaters and parents who are intimidated by making Chicken Salad Sandwiches (which I recently made — it only has a 10-minute prep). Add the healthy stuff later as your confidence grows.
Finally, those research study outcomes happen when the kids know they are needed at home and welcomed at the table. Children will not want to sit down if their chair becomes an instrument of interrogation and torture as they are continually criticized while passing the salt. Parents who do family meals right create a warm, friendly environment as they look each other in the eye across the table, ask questions, listen and laugh together.
Turn off the TV.
Turn off the cellphones and other electronic devices.
Turn on your parenting power to influence your kids for a lifetime of good.
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Her website is www.nelsonjuliek.com, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.