"What's for dinner?" Johnny says to his mom as he comes running into the house, home late from soccer practice and about to be late to piano lessons. Seeing dinner is not yet served, he grabs a bag of chips and some fruit snacks from the pantry and begins eating them on his way to the shower. Dad hasn't arrived from work yet, and the other kids recently finished their snack of graham crackers and chocolate milk. Now they say they don't feel like eating dinner. Mom sits down on the sofa with her microwave dinner and turns on her favorite TV show. What a relief! Everyone has eaten and they're all busy with other things for the next little bit. Mom can finally relax and have some down time to herself.
This may sound like the home of someone you know, or maybe even your own home. With busy schedules and countless obligations, families these days are hard pressed to eat any kind of balanced meal, let alone eat a meal together. But family mealtime is critical to your child's physical, emotional, and social development, as well as to their academic and behavioral outcomes. Frequent family mealtime also contributes to the level of connection your family enjoys.
The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches that "Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, [and] to provide for their physical and spiritual needs...By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children" (¶ 6-7). Family mealtime is an excellent setting for parents to fulfill these sacred duties. As parents, you can work as a team to create a healthy mealtime pattern in your home. This will enable you to provide for the needs of your children, while protecting and nurturing them as well.
How Your Child Can Benefit from Family Mealtime
Experts report that children who eat four or more meals a week with their family enjoy the following benefits:
- Physical development. Your child will eat more fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a greater variety of nutritious foods than children who do not eat with their families. He will also eat less fatty foods than his peers who do not have family mealtime at home. Healthy patterns like this lead to lower rates of childhood obesity. Your child will also benefit from your influence on his food choices. As you provide nutritious, low-fat foods for your child, and introduce new foods frequently, he will make healthier food choices on his own as well4.
- Emotional development. If your child has the chance to eat with the family often, she will be at a lower risk for developing eating disorders in the pre-teen years. She will also have improved communication skills, be able to manage her negative emotions more effectively, and experience more positive interactions with others5.
- Social development. Mealtime is an ideal place for your child to learn the social norms of the culture in which you live, as well as those of your own family's culture. He will learn these norms through the observation and interaction that occur naturally in a mealtime setting. Through participating in conversations, he will learn appropriate turn-taking skills and he may learn that in your family, it is unacceptable to interrupt others while they are speaking8. During family mealtime he may also learn about appropriate ways to share personal thoughts, feelings and opinions with others. For example, if your child does not like a food he is offered, he can learn to express that dislike in a way that does not offend others.
- Academic outcomes. Frequent family mealtime makes your child more likely to receive A's and B's in school than children who don't eat meals with their families1. She will also develop a larger vocabulary. In fact, experts say that mealtime is more effective in building children's vocabulary than nearly any other activity, including reading together. They also say that the amount of time spent in family meals during the preschool years is related to the level of achievement in vocabulary and reading during elementary school years8.
- Behavioral outcomes. In a survey conducted in 2009, researchers found that "one of the most effective ways parents can keep their kids from using substances is by sitting down to dinner with them"1 (p. ii). He will be less likely to use marijuana, tobacco and alcohol. He will also be less likely to have friends who use those substances, or have easy access to them.
- Family connection. Time spent together around the table also provides an opportunity for your family to create a unique family identity. It is a place where your family can establish traditions, share experiences and feelings, and join in laughter and joking. When you are intentional about providing a safe and joyful environment during family meals, your children will enjoy the security of knowing they are a VIP in a special group of people2.
Making Mealtime Matter
It's not only the frequency of mealtimes in a week that matters, but the quality of time spent together as a family. Seven family meals a week eaten in front of the TV will not bring the same benefits to your family as four meals a week around a table, with lively conversation involving all family members. So, how can you make mealtime matter in your home? Here are some small ways you can make a big difference in the way your family meals turn out:
- Plan ahead. Try planning meals ahead of time, even a week or two in advance. That way, you will know what to buy at the grocery store and you'll avoid the last-minute scramble to pull something edible together before the kids get hungry! Planning ahead will also help you make your meals more nutritious for your growing children9.
- Choose a regular mealtime. Predictability is important to children. If they know what to expect, they will pose less resistance when it's time to come to the table. If you can't have a meal at the same time every day because of changing schedules, try taking a moment at tonight's dinner to decide together on a time for tomorrow's meal9.
- Involve everyone in meal preparation and clean-up. Involving the whole family in preparation and clean-up will help each member feel ownership and responsibility for making mealtime happen. You may try following a nightly routine (for example, mom prepares the meal, kids set and clear the table, dad does the dishes), or you might like to use a chore rotation system where each member gets to do something different each night. Try a few ideas until you find what works best for your family9.
- Turn off the television. While TV is a tempting distraction, that's all it is: a distraction. Watching TV during family mealtime makes it difficult to engage in conversation, thus preventing the important family connections that could be made during that time. Save TV time for later and you will find that mealtime becomes more enjoyable for everyone4.
- Leave electronic devices (cell phones, BlackBerrys, Gameboys, etc.) in another room. Similar to TV, all of the gadgets and gizmos we have these days can be a distraction from what really matters at mealtime. Leaving these things in another room will allow the whole family to participate in mealtime conversation and receive the benefits of a meaningful family meal1.
- Eat around a table. Sitting around a table allows everyone eating to be part of the mealtime activity. When you and your child are able to see the faces of everyone else at the table, you will be more able to join in conversation and less likely to be excluded9.
- Have pleasant conversation. Try to eliminate (or at least reduce) conflict at the dinner table by saving tense conversations for another time. While it is important for you as parents to use mealtime as an opportunity to check in with your children, it is also important for children to feel a desire to join the family at dinner. Repeatedly choosing to discuss tense topics (poor grades, misbehavior that occurred earlier today or this week, financial difficulties) at family meals can make children want to avoid eating with the family9.
- Be flexible! Do what works for your family. Rigidity in carrying out family meals can have the opposite effect than the one you're aiming for. If something doesn't go as planned, have a good laugh about it with your kids and move forward. Be okay with eating slightly burnt casserole on paper plates every once in a while. Let a child eat dinner with another family occasionally. Your flexibility will have a great effect on how much your children enjoy mealtime with the family2.
From Routine to Ritual
Because of their repetitive nature, meals can easily become meaningless and mundane routines, much like flossing teeth or combing hair. However, when you make an effort to create meaning in your family's mealtime experience, you turn from routine to ritual. William Doherty2 said, "Family rituals are repeated and coordinated activities that have significance for the family. To be a ritual, the activity has to have meaning or significance; otherwise, it is a routine but not a ritual" (p. 10). In order to make a ritual of something that is normally a routine, he suggests that we become intentional about three aspects of the event. Listed below are the three aspects (or phases), with suggestions for applying them to family mealtime:
- Transition phase. Choose something you do every time you eat together to signal the transition into mealtime, like singing a song, lighting a candle, or saying a prayer.
- Enactment phase. Make the act of eating the meal meaningful by choosing an activity to do that helps you connect as a family. For example, have everyone share their high and low of the day, or choose a current event to discuss and share opinions with one another.
- Exit phase. Establish a signal that helps everyone recognize the end of the meal and dismisses family members to their other activities, such as blowing out the candle you lit at the beginning, or clearing off the table.
These phases need not be elaborate or profoundly significant. They simply need to create structure and add meaning to what would normally be routine2.
Making it Work for Your Family
Does all this seem overwhelming and nearly impossible for you with your hectic schedule? Don't worry, it seems that way to lots of people. You don't have to completely transform your mealtimes overnight. Just start small. Choose one idea or one way you can improve your family mealtime. Ask family members to share their ideas for how mealtime can be more meaningful for your family. Try incorporating a new idea every week or every month, even. You will be amazed at how the littlest things can make a big difference for your family9.
Suggested Reading & Further Resources
Making Mealtime Meaningful:
The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, by William Doherty
My Pyramid Menu Planner - http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/planner/launchPage.aspx
Written by Amy M. Scoville, Research Assistant, edited by Jenet J. Erickson and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- CASA. (2009). The importance of family dinners V. New York: Columbia Univeristy.
- Doherty, W. J. (2002). The intentional family: Simple rituals to strengthen family ties. New York: Quill.
- Fiese, B., Foley, K., & Spagnola, M. (2006). Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child well-being and family identity. In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.),Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization (pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Fiese, B., & Schwartz, M. (2008). Reclaiming the family table: Mealtimes and child health and wellbeing. Social Policy Report: Giving Child and Youth Development Knowledge Away, 22(4), 1-19.
- Larson, R., Branscomb, K., & Wiley, A. (2006). Forms and functions of family mealtimes: Multidisciplinary perspectives. In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.), Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization (pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2006). Eating among teens: Do family mealtimes make a difference for adolescent's nutrition? In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.), Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization (pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Orchs, E., & Shohet, M. (2006). The cultural structuring of mealtime socialization. In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.), Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization(pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- Snow, C., & Beals, D. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. In Larson, R., Wiley, A., & Branscomb, K. (Eds.), Family mealtime as a context of development and socialization(pp. 1-15). San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
- USDA. (2010). Enjoying the Family Meal. Retrieved January 16, 2010 fromwww.fns.usda.gov/tn/Resources/Nibbles/enjoying.pdf