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Is Family Dinner time really that important?

by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

Sometimes dinner can be a dread. The timing (witching hour anyone?), the attitudes, and the rush of some evenings. That’s just the one side of the equation, add in food preferences and it’s easy to want to throw in the towel. Though it’s difficult at times, there’s no doubt finding time (at least a few times a week) to enjoy a family dinner has an incredible impact. Research has shown that kids who regularly have family meals have:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing an eating disorder
  • Lower rates of obesity

You probably already knew these things, but it’s still so darn hard to put the time into cooking a meal that no one eats. Well, we are going to give you a few pointers here to make meal times better for everyone.

Meal Time Magic

The cool thing about enjoying meals with your child is that they are learning so many things about themselves during that time. They are learning what foods they like and dislike, how to trust their bodies to enjoy foods, and how to behave during meal times. Ideally this time should be calm and enjoyable for all at the table and one way to approach meal time is through a Division of Responsibly (developed and researched by Registered Dietitian, Ellyn Satter). Briefly, it is the parent’s responsibility to choose and prepare the food, set regular meal and snack times, and (most importantly) lead by example. From there you trust your child to eat the amount of food they need and learn how to eat new foods. As Mom, be mindful that a new food may be rejected just because they aren’t use to the taste, texture, shape, etc, so introduce it in several meals. This is often why babies with smash, throw, spit out foods when they first try them, it’s their way of experimenting with the newness of it all… and this applies at most ages. Using the Division of Responsibility can help take the pressure off of meal time and allow you to help your child create a healthy relationship with food. There is so much more on this topic that If you want to know more about it start reading here.

Making The Most of It

During meal times, your child should be eating the same foods the rest of the family is eating, with small tweeks when needed. This can happen as soon as they are able to eat regular table food and applies to any meal. For example, if you are enjoying soup as the main dish, strain the liquid and offer the solids of the soup to your toddler, or place the pureed soup in a cup for them to sip. It is also important to serve at least one item everyone at the table will enjoy. In our house, carrots are always a hit, so no matter what the meal a bag of carrots is always out for everyone to enjoy. Even if the food isn’t as healthy it’s ok to offer the food, just do so in a smaller portion. If you find your child refusing to eat foods at dinner time, then asking for snack soon after, remind them at dinner that they need to eat until their body is comfortable because there will be no more food until the next meal or snack. Limiting food to only designated meal and snack times can do wonders in promoting how a child eats.

One way to get your kids more involved and excited about meal times it to allow them to list favorite side dishes and meals on sticky notes. When planning your meal for the week you can use those notes to ensure everyone is getting something they enjoy at each meal.

Big picture

The goal of family meal time is to nurture the relationship with your family. Avoid any emotional food fights at the table and limit as many distractions as you can. Aim to create a positive association between this time (often the first time the family has been together since the beginning of the day) and your family. It is also important to know that family meal time doesn’t have to be around the kitchen table, it can be at a restaurant, at a relatives’ home, or even on tv trays in the living room with the tv turned off. Whatever it looks like in your home, take a few tips from above and make it happen!

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