After a year of spending lots of time together as a family, many of us are beginning to return to life on-the-go. Between work, school, errands, after-school sports and homework, it can be difficult to schedule time for everyone in the house to just be together. Meal times would seem to be ideal for this – everyone has to eat, after all, so why not do it together? Experts say eating together as a family can have numerous health benefits for everyone involved even beyond simple communication and bonding, which is why you definitely should try to dine as a family whenever possible, even if it’s challenging.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce says many people don’t realize how beneficial eating together as a family can be. “Research suggests having family meals together at least four times a week can have positive effects on everything from what foods your family is eating to overall child development,” Pierce said. “Eating together also has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, substance abuse, eating disorders and can increase a child’s likelihood of graduating high school. Families who eat together generally have a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, protein, calcium and vitamins,” she said. “Obviously, in our current society, it can be hard and even impossible to eat every single meal together as a family, but just trying to do so a few times a week can yield a lot of positive results for everyone,” she added.
“One of the key ways to reap the nutritional and developmental benefits of family meals is to experiment with fun new recipes,” Pierce said. “There are lots of resources online you can look to for ideas, including Pintrest, foodnetwork.com and allrecipes.com. Also, try having theme meal nights, such as ‘Taco Tuesday’ or crockpot night. These can be helpful because they take the worry and work out of meal planning, especially if it gives everyone a meal they enjoy and will look forward to eating on a weekly basis,” she explained. “You want to look at making family meal times a team effort, too. This can be accomplished by allowing kids to help shop or help make the shopping list. They also can help with meal preparation, particularly if you can prepare a few meals or ingredients on the weekends together and then use them for meals throughout the week,” she added.
Pierce says it’s also okay to say “yes” to your family’s favorite meals. “You know your family, so you know what they like, even if what they like may not always be good for them,” she said. “If you can, try to avoid saying ‘no’ to those meals, but instead try to modify them to make them healthier. For instance, if you frequently grab a pizza on the way home from work or afternoon sports practices, try to make sure there are some veggies around the house, too, to add to the meal and provide some balance,” she explained.
As for dinner times, themselves, Pierce suggests making the table a “no-phone zone.” “Try to set a rule that electronic devices aren’t to be used at the table,” she said. “This is a good way to emphasize that family meal time is a time to reconnect with members of the family, not more time to browse the internet or send text messages,” she said. “All of this can seem daunting, but family meal times really can improve the quality of both the foods you eat and the interactions you have with the people in your home. Pick a number of family meals per week that you want to set as a target goal, and stick to it. If something comes up and you miss one, do your best to reschedule it whenever possible,” she added.