“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. He grabs a bag of chips and some fruit snacks from the pantry and begins eating on his way to the shower. Dad hasn’t arrived from work, and the other kids recently finished their snack of graham crackers and chocolate milk. Now they say they aren’t hungry. Mom sits down on the sofa with her microwave dinner and turns on her favorite TV show. What a relief! Everyone’s eaten and they’re all busy with other things. Mom can finally relax.
This may sound like the home of someone you know, or maybe even your own home. With busy schedules and countless obligations, families 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 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 “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.” 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. This will enable you to provide for the needs of your children while protecting and nurturing them.
How Your Child Can Benefit
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, enjoy a greater variety of nutritious foods, and will eat less fatty foods. Healthy patterns like this lead to lower rates of childhood obesity. Your child will also benefit from your influence on food choices. As you provide nutritious, low-fat foods, and introduce new foods frequently, your child will make healthier food choices on his own as well.
- Emotional development. If your child eats 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, and experience more positive interactions with others.
- Social development. Mealtime is an ideal place to learn the social norms of the culture in which you live, as well as those of your own family. Your child will learn these norms through the observation and interaction that occur naturally at mealtime. Through participating in conversations, he will learn appropriate turn-taking skills and may learn that in your family, it is unacceptable to interrupt others. He may also learn about appropriate ways to share personal thoughts, feelings and opinions. For example, if your child doesn’t like a food he’s offered, he can learn to express dislike in a way that doesn’t offend others.
- Academic outcomes. Frequent family mealtime makes your child more likely to receive A’s and B’s in school. She will also develop a larger vocabulary. In fact, experts say mealtime is more effective in building children’s vocabulary than nearly any other activity, including reading together. They also say the amount of time spent in family meals during preschool is related to the level of achievement in vocabulary and reading during elementary school.
- Behavioral outcomes. In a survey conducted in 2009, researchers found “one of the most effective ways parents can keep their kids from using substances is by sitting down to dinner with them.” 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 also provides an opportunity for your family to create a unique family identity. It’s a place where your family can establish traditions, share experiences and feelings, and join in laughter and joking. When you intentionally provide a safe and joyful environment during family meals, your children enjoy the security of knowing they are a VIP in a special group of people.
Making Mealtime Matter
It’s not only the frequency of mealtimes that matters, but the quality of time spent together. Seven family meals a week eaten in front of the TV will not bring the same benefits as four meals a week around a table, with lively conversation involving all family members. So, how can you make mealtime matter? Here are some small ways you can make a big difference:
- Plan ahead. Try planning meals ahead of time, even a week or two in advance. That way, you will know what to buy and you’ll avoid the last-minute scramble to pull something together before the kids get hungry! Planning ahead will also help you make your meals more nutritious.
- Choose a regular mealtime. Predictability is important to children. If they know what to expect, they will pose less resistance when it’s time. 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 meal.
- Involve everyone in meal preparation and clean-up. Involving the whole family 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 family.
- Turn off the television. 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 for later and you will find that mealtime becomes more enjoyable for everyone.
- Leave electronic devices (cell phones, 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 meal.
- Eat around a table. Sitting around a table allows everyone eating to be part of the mealtime. When you and your child are able to see the faces of everyone else, you will be more able to join in conversation and less likely to be excluded.
- Have pleasant conversation. Try to eliminate (or at least reduce) conflict at the dinner table by saving tense conversations for another time. While it’s important for you as parents to use mealtime as an opportunity to check in with your children, it’s also important for children to feel a desire to join the family at dinner. Repeatedly choosing to discuss tense topics (poor grades, misbehavior, financial difficulties) at family meals can make children want to avoid eating with the family.
- Be flexible! Do what works for your family. Rigidity in carrying out family meals can have the opposite effect than 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 family.
From Routine to Ritual
Because of their repetitive nature, meals can easily become meaningless and mundane routines, like flossing teeth or combing hair. However, when you make an effort to create meaning in your mealtime experience, you turn from routine to ritual. William Doherty 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.” In order to make a ritual of something that’s normally a routine, he suggests we become intentional about three aspects of the event:
- 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 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.
- Exit phase. Establish a signal that helps everyone recognize the end of the meal, 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 routine.
Making it Work for Your Family
Does all this seem overwhelming and nearly impossible 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 mealtime. Ask family members to share their ideas for how mealtime can be more meaningful. Try incorporating a new idea every week or every month. You will be amazed at how the littlest things can make a big difference for your family.
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.
Adapted from the Website Forever Families. For references, see the original.