With many families in back-to-school busy mode, it can sometimes be difficult to enjoy having meals together. However, research shows that having meals together is beneficial for individuals as well as the whole family. Family members who eat together tend to eat healthier – they eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat overall. Family mealtimes foster more positive family interactions, teach good manners, and help youth practice communication and build their vocabulary and social skills. Research has also found that youth who participate in family mealtimes had higher academic performance and lower incidence of depression, substance use and other risky behaviors. If sharing meals together is so beneficial, why does it seem so difficult to make it happen?
Sometimes it can be due to meal expectations. What is your idea of a family mealtime? Does it take place at home, with nice dinnerware, and a full seven-course meal? For mealtimes to be beneficial, the most important aspect is for the family members to participate, but the where, when and how can vary. The family may only be able to eat breakfast together, or have the meal at a restaurant, as a picnic or even in the car! Maybe everyone chooses their own food or snack and eat out on the patio. Family mealtimes can take on many forms, but it is crucial that family members are present, the atmosphere is positive, and distractions like electronic devices and TV are eliminated. Making mealtimes a priority and coordinating family members' schedules to include them will also go a long way to get the whole family together.
Sometimes it can be hard to have good conversations at mealtimes – especially with teens! The Family Dinner Project (www.familydinnerproject.org) offers these potential conversation starters for families with children in school:
- What's one thing you learned today that you think I might not know?
- Who are you most excited to see at school? Least excited? Why?
- If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?
- Think of a project or assignment you really enjoyed. Why did you enjoy it?
- If you could make the rules at school, what would your top 3 rules be?
- Tell me about what lunch (or recess) was like today.
- What motivates you to work hard at school? What doesn't motivate you, and how can we change it?
- If you could take a class in anything, what would it be?
- Who is the best teacher you have this year (or have ever had)? What makes them a great teacher?
- What makes you feel good about yourself when you're at school?
Keep family meals fun and simple. Be creative and have all family members involved in the planning, preparing and cleaning up. Also, remember that it is not all about the meal, but about being together and interacting positively with each other that are the primary goals!