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The Family Dinner Table

Finding time for this important place to connect

March 2014

By now, most parents have heard the importance of eating meals together. Research suggests that children whose families regularly sit down for meals have greater academic achievement, better eating habits, higher self-esteem and even less drug use.

However, bringing all members of the family together for a meal can seem nearly impossible at times. Demanding work schedules, different bedtimes for younger children and various extracurricular activities all compete for time – making a family dinner together seem more of an idealistic virtue than a realistic possibility. It can be done though! Try these tips with your family to schedule, and make the most of, mealtimes.

A standing reservation

If all members of your family have an evening that is (somehow!) free each week, make a commitment to share dinner together that day – and stick to it. Not only will the weekly date become routine, but it will also become something your kids will look forward to, says Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer, Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Breakfast can also be a great option for family time when work schedules and after school commitments make dinner together difficult. Since younger kids are generally up early, and older children have to get to school, breakfast can be a time that works for everyone.

When things get truly hectic, improvise. Do your kids have an all-day soccer tournament on the weekend? Pack a picnic lunch and eat together during a break, suggests Dr. Bauer. The kitchen table isn't the only place you can bond.

Now you're cooking

To get kids more invested in a family dinner, try involving them in the meal-making process. "When children are very young, they might help by mixing or washing ingredients. Older children, meanwhile, might be able to help by setting the table or pouring drinks," says Brett Enneking, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis.

Have younger children peruse cooking magazines or kids' cookbooks to choose something that looks good to them. Older kids can look online for recipes, make a grocery list and assist with shopping. "Getting children interested in meal preparation also has the added benefit of making cooking time a way to spend one-on-one time with your child," says Bauer, "which allows for the parent to model appropriate and healthy behaviors, as well as the work that goes into the process."

Dinner conversation do's and don'ts

To make a family meal something kids look forward to, and not dread, parents should refrain from having weighty discussions or broaching upsetting topics says Bauer. Instead, make mealtime an opportunity for kids to share their thoughts and ideas.

She suggests that parents ask kids to share the "high and low" parts of their day. "However, if the child does not want to share, he or she can 'pass' from sharing something personal." Bauer adds that kids can contribute to the conversation instead by offering their thoughts on what other family members say.

Sharing meals together can shed some light on what kids are really interested in, so pay attention says Enneking. "Ask questions about their interests to get them talking. Once they start talking, really listen and respond along the way."

Above all, remember that family meals are not about the food, but the interaction it brings. By making time together a priority, you are cultivating connection – and that's what being a family is all about.

Tags: Featured Article, Featured Article, In This Issue, Parenting

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