Gather around the family table for your health

As parents I think most of us relish the mental picture of our family gathered around the dinner table together. However, when kids are very young, the reality may be something very different and mealtime can be a struggle.

Sometimes chaos takes over, with messy toddlers throwing food or mashing it onto the table or highchair, picky eaters causing battle of the wills or worse yet tantrums at the table. It’s tiring having to spoon feed (or better yet breastfeed) babies at the end of a long day.

But then it seems like just when kids mature enough for pleasant dinner-table conversation, they are entering the teen years and evenings are full of activities, practices and homework. Getting everyone to sit down together and eat at the same time is like herding cats. Yet making the attempt to gather around the family table, away from TV, computer or phone, even just a few times a week, can have a very positive impact on your family dynamics and health.

According to a study in Pediatrics (Hammons and Fiese, 2011), “The frequency of shared family meals is significantly related to nutritional health in children and adolescents. Children and adolescents who share family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than 3 family meals together. In addition, they are less likely to engage in disordered eating.”

Research also shows that the more meal-time we spend together as a family, the less time our adolescent children spend engaging in behaviors that place them at risk. Specifically, a 2006 study by Fulkerson, of 99,000 adolescents found a protective relationship between the frequency of family dinners and high risk behaviors including substance use, sexual activity, depression/suicide, violence, school problems and binge eating.

In other words, the more the teens ate family dinners at home, the less they participated in these risky behaviors.

Particularly during the teen years, families may struggle with communication. Meal time may not solve this entirely, but it can provide a forum for some discussion to occur. In fact, research shows that teens actually crave time to communicate with their parents, even though they may not always show it. Meal time creates a regular space for the sharing of ideas, struggles and successes to occur.

Here are some tips to improve your mealtime experience:

1. Keep meal time positive! Never use it as a time to interrogate, scold or punish children.

2. Don’t force kids to finish everything if they are not hungry. Instead encourage them to try every dish, and make it clear that if they don’t eat their food they won’t be allowed a lot of snacking later.

3. Involve the kids in cooking, shopping and meal planning. Assign each family member a night that they choose/plan the meal (or help depending on the ages of your children). These are great skills for them to have when they grow up and they will actually look forward to their “night.”

4. Talk about the food, where it comes from, healthy serving sizes, nutrients, colors. Again, depending on the ages of the kids, you can do a lot of teaching while you prepare and eat the food together. Make it fun by trying new foods from different cultures and regions.

5. Come up with your own routine of going around the table to share or ask questions. It can be a game. Have each family member come up with some questions and write them on pieces of paper to put in a jar. Take turns choosing one question at each meal and give everyone an opportunity to answer.

As one of my teens heads off to college, I relish the times we can all share a meal around the table. These are the moments we share our lives, our struggles and our dreams. It’s what I want him to remember about being a family — a safe space to hear and be heard.

It also keeps us eating healthier. They don’t have to be fancy meals and usually are not at my house, but can be well-balanced with plenty of fruits and vegetables. I want my kids to know what a healthy meal looks and tastes like. Of course we order pizza sometimes, but having the routine of eating together around the table most evenings is generally healthier for all of us.

Who has time for all of this? It’s a struggle but well worth carving out the time when we can. With the school year starting, make it a goal to eat at least two to three meals a week together sitting around the table without distraction.

You’ll be surprised at the impact this can have on your family’s health, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! Your Health Matters!