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The Importance of Family Meals, Especially During Childhood

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, many Americans would normally be traveling long distances to come together, express thanks, celebrate and share a meal with family. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts are suggesting you may be better off staying home.

According to Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “each individual family should evaluate the risk-benefit of having family gatherings, particularly when you have people coming in from out of town who may have been on airplanes, in airports, to just come into the house.” The CDC has outlined examples of lower, moderate and higher risk ways to celebrate with your loved ones. Keep these in mind so you can enjoy the holidays while leaving unexpected coronavirus guests at the door.

If there’s one thing the ongoing pandemic has shown us, it’s that we shouldn’t take family gatherings and spending time with our loved ones for granted. While Thanksgiving and other holidays may look different than usual this year, we encourage you to spend some time considering what you’d like your family meals to look like once they can resume.

Broadening the Definition of a “Family Meal”

Coming together for a meal has the potential to nourish the mind and body of everyone involved. Think of a family meal less as a four-course dinner and more as an opportunity to take a break from everyday life and enjoy a meal with the members of your household. We’re using the term “family meal” pretty loosely. It could last 10 minutes or an hour. You might be eating a home cooked meal or takeout. These days, you might be eating a family meal on a Zoom video call. Family meals aren’t limited to dinner; it could be breakfast, lunch or even snack time. Focus less on the food and more on the people you are breaking bread with. Take the suggestion of having a family meal and make it work for you.

Why Are Family Meals So Important?

Family meals have a positive impact on health-promoting and risk-reducing behaviors. Starting in childhood, carrying through adolescence and into adulthood, engaging in family meals promotes healthy eating now and reduces the risk for obesity later. In fact, people typically eat less during shared meals due to talking more and eating slower.

Evidence suggests family meals promote increased fruit and vegetable consumption and less consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Family meals offer the potential for modeling healthy eating behaviors such as moderate portion sizes, trying new foods and stopping when full. Family meals also contribute to reductions in substance use and mental health issues and higher grades among children.

Family meals also provide quality time together in a distraction-free setting and a platform for building communication skills. The combination of quality time and conversation leads to deeper connections over time. Adults who grew up participating in family meals are more likely to practice sharing, fairness and respect towards others. Family meals nourish the physical, mental, emotional and social needs of all members of the family.

Laying the Ground Rules

It’s important to set expectations for everyone involved, especially if your idea of a family meal is grabbing a bowl of cereal and retreating to your own section of the home.

  • Identify the purpose of the family meal. For some, it may be teaching good table manners to children. For others, it may be improving communication with one another.
  • Test out a no electronics policy at the dinner table to emphasize truly being present with one another.
  • Divvy up the tasks so one person is not responsible for all the food prep, serving and cleanup.
  • No matter the specific purpose, a family meal provides a chance to check in with each other, review the highs and lows of the day and preview what’s to come tomorrow.

Seeing the Opportunity

Are you interested in shifting dinnertime to feel more like an opportunity and less like a chore? Dr. Anne K. Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and a clinical psychologist, teacher and family therapist, answers common questions parents may have, such as:

  • How can we find the time to cook and eat together when we’re so busy?
  • What if the TV is on?
  • What are some fun games and dinner activities for younger children?
  • I always run out of things to talk about with my teenager. How can I get past “I’m fine”?
  • My children and/or my spouse are texting at the table, and it drives me crazy. How can I ask them to stop without driving them away?

While quality food is important, the conversations shared, lessons learned and bonds formed when coming together as a family may be even more beneficial.

[Emily Smith is the Fund’s Health Promotion Manager.]

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