Health Beat: Family meals have their benefits

Published 10:26 am Monday, December 9, 2013

Your belly might know the benefits of having family meals if you had the opportunity recently to sit down and enjoy a meal together as a family. Besides the reminiscing, fellowship, laughter, and delicious food, your children got a number of additional benefits.  Family meals build a sense of togetherness between parents and children through listening, sharing, and establishing trust. Unfortunately, it can be difficult with our busy schedules to eat meals, especially healthy ones, together as a family, but family meals don’t have to be big family get-togethers or five course meals. Family meals can be simply you and your children, and family meals can happen anytime and anywhere.  It is worth the effort; the benefits are great!

Children who eat family meals are less likely to be overweight or obese and also have higher intakes of calcium, fiber, iron, and many vitamins. Most children and adults are falling short of the recommended amounts of fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and potassium so regular family meals provide a boost of health for your kids and likely you as well. Eating meals as a family gives you the opportunity to be a role model for your kids. When they see you eating nutritious foods, they are much more likely to do the same. Studies show if you smile when you eat nutritious foods, the likelihood of them eating those foods goes up even more.

Additionally, eating together as a family can help protect your children from violence and risky behavior. Teenagers who eat with their families are less likely to use alcohol or drugs, and they are also less likely to smoke or suffer from mental health issues. Parents who regularly have family meals find that a positive mealtime environment gives their children an opportunity to talk about anything troubling them, and they find this time allows them to hear about what happened to their children that day.  Make meals a “tech-free” zone. Turn off the TV at mealtime and tune into each other.

Furthermore, family meals teach manners and social skills and help language development in younger children. Children who regularly have family meals have better academic performance and score better on tests.

If you recognize the importance of family meals but struggle with busy schedules and the work involved, I have good news. Family meals don’t have to happen at home. They can take place in the car or at restaurant—anytime and anyplace. Create a car pantry, and stash napkins, plastic utensils and healthful snacks in your car to fuel your family on the run. Make a meal at home that you can take with you, such as wrapped burritos, English-muffin pizzas, kabobs or mini subs, and add some cut or steamed veggies, fruit or yogurt.  If a drive thru seems like your only option, have numbers for restaurants with healthful take-out options in your phone. This way you can order in advance to avoid temptation.

Family meals can happen for any meal. Maybe dinner never seems to work, but you figure out a way your family could have breakfast together. The holidays are a busy time, but think simple and make a plan for the week. Use meal shortcuts like premade pizza crust and pre-cut vegetables and fruit. Look in the freezer section for steamable vegetables or a stir-fry blend to throw in a stovetop stir-fry. Try taco night or a baked potato bar, and pasta with sauce can be made in minutes.

Family meals should be positive; they are not the time for punishment. Praise positive behaviors, and resist the temptation to scold your children for not eating certain foods. Remember the division of responsibility in feeding: Parents decide what is served, where and when, and children decide if they eat and how much.  Don’t give up if they don’t eat a certain food; it can take 10 to 20 times for a child to accept a food.

Also, enlist the help of your children or other adults with clean up or preparation. This can help take the load off of you. Children can get out ingredients, wash and tear lettuce and set the table. Every involvement they have in making the meal makes them more likely to eat what is served. They become invested.

Enjoy the holiday season by eating together as a family. It’s a valuable gift.


Andrea Nikolai is a registered dietitian at Washington Pediatrics, 1206 Brown St., Washington, and can be reached at 252-946-4134.