From Parenting 24/7: University of Illinois Extension


Reclaiming the Family Table (abridged)

Posted , updated Sep 29, 2005.

Reclaiming the Family Table (abridged)

For many American families, shared mealtimes are less and less common. 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.

Yet most families feel that it is very important for families to eat together frequently. Children benefit emotionally and physically from eating meals together as a family. Mealtimes create and support family identity. A large national study of American teenagers found a strong link between regular family meals, academic success and positive psychological adjustment. In addition, rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicidal risks are lower when families eat meals together. When parents and children eat together, they tend to eat healthier foods. Children eat more fruits, vegetables and dairy foods and less high fat, high sugar foods.

Mealtime Conversations

Mealtimes may provide a time and place for communication, relaxation and catching up on family news. Whether children are toddlers or teens, communication with parents is important. Here are some examples of conversation that can take place at the dinner table.

  • Sharing family stories
  • Sharing family values and expectations
  • Learning about daily activities, including stresses and accomplishments
  • Complimenting or thanking family members for things they have done.

Conversation ideas: Something that makes me happy is…If I could live anywhere in the world, I would pick…I like my best friend because…I wish I could… I’m stressed about…I think I look like…My favorite story is…

Roadblocks to Family Mealtime

Busy lifestyles and conflicting schedules make it hard to sit down together at mealtime. Families that work different shifts may find it more challenging to find time to eat together.

Watching television can interfere with family meals, also. Half of the families in a recent Gallop poll say they watch television during dinner.

The parent in charge of meal preparation may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility and differences in food preferences of family members.

Even though barriers exist, the many benefits may encourage families to increase the number of meals they share.

Ideas for Getting to the Table

Here are some tips to help you find time to share a meal.

  • Make it a family priority. Challenge your family to eat at least one additional meal together next week.
  • Shared meals don’t have to be time-consuming. Simple meals can taste good. The food can be from the freezer or occasionally from a take-out spot.
  • Reduce pre-dinner stress. Your arrival home may be stressful. Your little ones may be hungry, crabby and clingy. If children get hungry before everyone arrives home, have a healthy snack ready. It can also be helpful to have a prepared “pre-dinner activity” for youngsters such as a box with paper and crayons for drawing pictures of their day. The pictures can be discussed during the meal.
  • It doesn’t have to be dinner. If dinner doesn’t work for your family, try making breakfast the family meal. If it’s impossible to eat together everyday, set aside specific days for family meals.
  • Show that family meals are important. Turn off the TV and don’t answer the phone while you are eating. Newspapers can be read after the meal.
  • Eat around a table. It is easier to talk and listen when you are facing each other.
  • Enjoy meal talk. Make easy conversation—don’t nag or complain. Allow everyone a chance to talk.
  • Keep mealtime short. A child needs enough time to eat, but sitting patiently for a long time is too much to expect. If kids get fussy, your family meal won’t be fun.
  • Try some new ideas. Create a new tradition by having a family picnic night weekly during the summer. Eat outdoors, at a nearby park or on the living room floor.
  • Get everyone involved. Children are more likely to eat meals they help plan or prepare. They can wash veggies, make place mats, or set the table. As children get older, they can become more involved in the preparation.

For a more detailed discussion of how family mealtimes affect the well-being of its members, click here or go to:

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