I recently shared results from several studies, indicating how family meals can have positive effects on children and teens, both nutritionally and psychologically. With this research evidence in mind, these strategies can help families turn mealtime challenges into positive nutrition where family connections and learning thrive, too.
1. Commit to Family Meal Time
- Set a goal together for regular family meals, at least three times weekly if possible. It can be dinner, a shared breakfasts, or even shared snacks -- if that's the only time your family can eat together. Be flexible; enjoy your shared meal anywhere your family can be together.
- Stick to a consistent mealtime schedule, perhaps with designated family dinner nights. Routine is best for kids ... even if the meal must be simple.
- Involve kids as meal prep partners. They'll be more eager to commit to family meals if they help plan, prep, and serve the food. And, it's a great chance for them to learn culinary skills, perhaps learn how dry pasta gets soft enough to eat, or how oranges can be squeezed to make juice.
2. Make mealtime easy, healthful, and kid-friendly
- Offer and eat a variety of colorful veggies and fruit, and other nutrient-rich foods. Pasta tossed with a rainbow of stir-fried vegetables is quick and kid-friendly!
- Make the meal special even if it's simple. Set the table nicely, perhaps a simple centerpiece and placemats (maybe made by kids).
- Use time saving strategies for food to have more table time. Pre-prep part of the meal ahead, perhaps with assembly meals, to reduce mealtime stress.
- As a parent or older sibling, be a good role model. Children watch what and how parents and siblings eat. Most children want to grow up doing what others do, and they are eager for approval. Be a new food try-er. Show portion control with slower eating and appropriate amounts. Practice good manners; shows respect.
3. Make mealtime a quality family time
- Keep mealtime positive and table talk pleasant. Treat everyone at the table with affection and respect. Save difficult and disciplinary conversations for later.
- Encourage positive interpersonal relationships at the family table. Remove distractions: TV, cell phones, email, pets. Eat around a table, not side by side at the counter -- for talk and eye contact. Connect and share information; ask about school, the day, friends, goals, etc. Take turns talking. Give attention to everyone at the table.
- Pace the meal: neither rushed nor prolonged.
Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RD, CFCS is author of the American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, which has more guidance on family mealtime.