By Janice Wade-Miller, Education Instructor, Pinellas County Extension
“Dinner’s ready. Come and get it!” How often are those words called out in your home? Can you remember the last time your family sat down and enjoyed dinner together? Even our children’s daily schedules are filled to the brim with music lessons, soccer practice, play rehearsals, and the work schedules of our teens. We know through research that there are great benefits for our children. I will share some of those benefits in a moment. But how do you go about making family meals a common occurrence without it seeming like a real chore?
In today’s fast-paced world, it can be tough---even nearly impossible---to plan, prepare, and share family meals, and then be relaxed enough to enjoy them. Try these steps to schedule family meals and make them enjoyable for everyone who pulls up a chair.
1. PLAN Look over the calendar to choose a time when everyone can be there. Figure out which obstacles are getting in the way of more family meals — busy schedules, no supplies in the house, no time to cook. Ask for the family's help for ideas on how these roadblocks can be removed. For instance, figure out a way to get groceries purchased for a family meal. Maybe your teen clerks in the neighborhood grocery store. Or if time to cook is the problem, try having the family do some prep work on weekends or even completely preparing a dish ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.
2. PREPARE Once you have all your supplies on hand, involve the kids in preparing the meal. Recruiting younger kids can mean a little extra work, but it's often worth it. Have the younger kids put plates on the table, toss the salad, pour beverages, fold the napkins, or be a "taster". Older kids can get ingredients, wash produce, mix and stir, and serve. If you have teens around, consider assigning them a night to cook, with you as the helper. For those nights, give them free reign to do the shopping and choose the foods they want to make. Does that sound like fun? Some of the conversation around the table that night is sure to be a lively discussion of their choices for the meal.
3. ENJOY Make your time at the table pleasant and a chance for everyone to decompress from the day and enjoy being together as a family. They may be starving, but have your children wait until everyone is seated before digging in. Create a moment of calm before the meal begins to give a chance to say grace, thank the cook, wish everyone a good meal, or raise a glass of milk in a toast. You're setting the mood and modeling good manners and patience at the same time.
There are good reasons to make family meals a habit and a tradition that your children will always remember about growing up. Here are just a few of the many well-researched reasons to make family meals a regular and anticipated event:
Reason #1: Helps your families stay connected
Conversations during the meal provide opportunities for the family to bond, plan, connect, and learn from one another. Ask everyone to share their favorite part or biggest challenge of the day. Share your news too. Discuss an activity the family can do together and then put it on the calendar. Family meals foster warmth, security and love, as well as feelings of belonging. It can be a unifying experience for all.
Reason #2: Expands their world… one food at a time
Children can be encouraged to try new foods during family meals. Remember that it can take 8-10 exposures to a new food before it is accepted, so be patient. Trying a new food expands your child’s knowledge, experience and skill. Use your imagination and make a simple meal from another country, select a new vegetable from your local farmer’s market, or have your children select a new recipe from one of your cookbooks, a web site, or the newspaper.
Reason #3: Prevents destructive behaviors
Research shows that frequent family dinners (five or more a week), are associated with lower rates of smoking, drinking and illegal drug use in pre-teens and teenagers when compared to families that eat together two or fewer times per week. Even as older children’s schedules get more complicated, it is important to make an effort to eat meals together. Scheduling is a must.
Reason #4: Improves grades
Children do better in school when they eat more meals with their parents and family. Teens that eat dinner four or more times per week with their families have higher academic performance compared with those who eat with their families two or fewer times per week.Reason # 5: Saves moneyMeals purchased away from home cost two to four times more than meals prepared at home. At the present time the restaurant industry’s share of the total food dollar is more than 46%. Due to scheduling, commitments, and activities, families eat out several times each week. It’s time to bring the family back to the dinner table. Sharing dinner together gives everyone a sense of identity. It can help ease day-to-day conflicts, as well as establish traditions and memories that can last a lifetime and be passed down through the generations.
To give you a head start on ideas for your family mealtimes, click on each of these two links to see an easy, nutritious and fun family meal for adults and kids of all ages. You don’t have to bother to make different foods for grown-ups and for children. Everyone will love these:
Low-Fat Sloppy Joes
Sweet Potatoes with Warm Black Bean Salad
Click on this link to see a short video making a vegetable and cheese quesadilla meal for parents and children of all ages, all the way down to infants: http://www.freshfromfloridakids.com/videos/flash/Quesadillas_Web.htm
Kids Health Web site
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Web site
Fresh from Florida Kids Web site