A family meal, once considered standard, has become far less commonplace in recent decades, probably due to more parents working — or both parents and children having too much else to do besides sitting down together.
A dietitian has shared ideas to work around busy schedules and revive the idea of a family dining together — in part or as a whole.
Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, which specializes in nutrition education and recipe development. She recently wrote a column for The Washington Post that offered “Seven research-backed tips to make the most of family meals, no matter how often they happen.”
This may seem an impossible task, but Rosenbloom wrote that it’s more important how family members dine together than how often they do it. That’s a good point, and here are some of her suggestions:
• It’s OK if a family meal doesn’t occur every day. Rosenbloom cited research indicating most American families — of all ethnic backgrounds — eat together an average of three times a week.
The research showed that just two family meals a week can provide plenty of benefits for participating children — a healthier diet, greater family connectedness, higher academic success, a lower risk of substance abuse and better communication skills.
• A family meal doesn’t have to include everybody. Researchers in Germany found benefits to just two family members dining together. These meals don’t have to be at home, either: It’s fine if the parents are tired at dinnertime and decide to take the family to a restaurant.
• Breakfast and lunch count as a family meal. That provides more opportunities than just seven dinners per week.
• When possible, get the family involved in preparing the meal. This can include grocery shopping, helping to cook, setting the table or doing the dishes afterward. This takes the burden away from just one person. Studies also show that children eat more healthfully when they help with preparation.
• Super-healthy meals are not required. One researcher quoted by Rosenbloom said a mix of fresh food and store food — a salad and a frozen pizza, for example — provides plenty of health benefits.
• Keep the conversation positive. This is an important point. Although many people may have a different experience, Rosenbloom writes, “Family meals are not the right time for arguments. Ideally, shared meals should be used as a time to catch up and enjoy one another’s company.” A positive atmosphere at the table is especially helpful for kids.
• Turn off the electronic devices. Another excellent idea. It’s not really family time if everyone is checking text messages every two minutes, or if half the people dining are watching television.
“Our family dinners don’t always match the ideal that’s been pushed on parents, but I’ve realized that how we eat together — the TV is off, phones are banned and communication is open — is more important than how often,” Rosenbloom wrote. That’s good advice for any family, no matter what its composition.