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Reclaiming the Family Table

Posted , updated Jun 07, 2005.

Reclaiming the Family Table
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends shared dinnertimes as often as possible as a way to strengthen families and support children’s development.
Jay ran into the kitchen after the softball game and checked to see if Lou Anne had time to leave him and the kids some dinner before leaving for her 3-11 shift. No such luck tonight, and her note said that her elderly mother’s doctor appointment ran very late. He saw that she had left some chicken thawing and a bag of salad mix in the refrigerator. The oldest, Jeannie, ran in to remind him that her piano lesson was less than half an hour from now—no time to cook anything again this evening. Maybe they had time to go to the drivethrough on the way to piano lessons.

For many American families, shared mealtimes have become less and less common. Regular family dinners have been described as one of the chief casualties of over scheduling. Perhaps dualearner families and single parents who work know better than anyone the struggles in finding time to eat together in a relaxed way.

In a recent national study commissioned by the White House and the YMCA, one in four parents reported that their families eat together four or fewer times per week. In that same study, one in ten admitted that they eat only one or no meals per week with their children.

Extension staff at Iowa State University recently learned that while 42% of participating Iowa families reporting eating most meals together, another 48% said they would like to share more mealtimes than they do. In another recent study contracted by KidsPeace, 83% of families reported feeling that it is very important for families to eat together frequently. Experts agree with parents that mealtimes are important. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends shared dinnertimes as often as possible as a way to strengthen families and support children’s development. There are a number of important ways that shared mealtimes can benefit families according to recent research.

  • Teenagers who eat meals with their families frequently are less likely to be depressed or use drugs than those who do not eat with their family as frequently. They are also less likely to be violent, to have sex, and to experience emotional stress. These adolescents who eat meals with their families frequently also are likely to be more highly motivated in school and have better peer relationships.
  • Regular shared mealtimes can increase children’s sense of belonging and stability and the entire family’s feeling of group connection. Many adolescents in a large national study reported that they want to be with their parents for most evening meals.
  • Teenagers who share meals with their families on a regular basis tend to eat healthier foods than those who do not. They consume fewer high-fat, high-sugar prepared and packaged foods and more fruits and vegetables and other foods high in important nutrients and fiber.

One common denominator that contributes to the importance of family mealtimes is parent-child communication. Experts agree that open communication with parents is important from a child’s early months through their adolescent years. Mealtimes that are shared by family members may provide a time and place for in-depth communication, relaxation, and renewing of family bonds. Sixty percent of respondents to a recent survey reported that they use mealtimes as a time to catch up on family news.

There is general agreement among families and experts that shared mealtimes are important. In spite of this, many families find it difficult to have meals together. The Iowa Extension survey reported the following barriers to shared family mealtimes:

  • General busyness of family members often due to different and conflicting schedules (especially important were work schedules and children’s activities, particularly as children enter adolescence)
  • Lack of commitment on part of family members to shared mealtimes for example, the interference of television was frequently mentioned (50% of families in a recent Gallop poll say their families watch television during dinner)
  • Food-related problems (for example, lack of cooking skills and differences in food preferences)

While the barriers are sobering, the benefits lead many parents to try to increase the number of meals that they share with their children.

Some experts suggest that families aim for at least four shared dinners per week. If you are meeting this goal, you might see if there are ways to make better use of your family’s together time. If not, you might start by determining why your family no longer eats together. Make a list of the reasons you haven’t been getting together for meals. Make a chart of each person’s weekly schedule (a sample is shown in the book Putting Family First). Identifying the problems will help you find a solution that works for your situation.

Some Ideas for Getting Your Family to the Table

Doris Christopher discusses a number of ideas for reclaiming the family mealtime in her book Come to the Table: A Celebration of Family Life. Here are a few strategies that work for some families.

  • Make it a family priority to share meals. Establish the importance of shared mealtimes with your partner and children. Insist that everyone make the commitment and stick to it. Issue a “family challenge” to eat at least one meal per day four days a week for the coming two weeks.
  • Declare shared meals to be “sacred” family time. Set a beginning and ending time and devote the meal to talking and having fun as a family. Turn off the television, and tape programs that can be watched after mealtime. Turn off pagers and let the answering machine or voice mail record calls. Ban books and newspapers unless they are being shared with everyone.
  • Be flexible about when, where, and what. Shared meals don’t have to be at the same time every day or gourmet fare. The food can be from the freezer, a takeout spot, or in a sit-down restaurant as long as the focus is on talking and being together and not just rushing. If one parent or child can’t make it until later in the evening, have a healthy snack so that the meal can be put off until everyone is home. If you can’t eat together every evening, start with several evenings a week and write them on the calendar. If you can’t find evenings, try mornings. Some healthy eating tips for working families can be found in the handout in this series titled “Diet – Never Ending Battle or Lifestyle?”
  • Reduce pre-dinner stress. The time just before dinner is often challenging, especially if you have young children—you are busy and the little ones are hungry, crabby, and clingy. Make a simple healthy appetizer or snack part of the routine, such as a bag of carrots and some dip or cheese and crackers. Have a pre-dinner “activity box” for little ones that includes paper and crayons for making dinner invitations or drawing pictures of daily activities to be discu

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