Health & Medicine

Dinner time is family time

A sure-fire tool for enhancing your family’s emotional and physical health is as close as your dining table.

Kids who eat with their folks develop healthier eating habits. Research shows they tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid fried foods, soda and foods laden with trans fat. Since nearly one in five U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 15 is overweight, family dinners are one way parents can lower their kids’ risk.

Children improve their cognitive skills when they dine with Mom and Dad. Studies show that family dinners are more important than play and story time in developing tots’ vocabularies. Grade-school students are 40 percent more likely to get As and Bs on their report cards when they have two or more family dinners each week.

Frequent family meals are associated with less smoking, drinking and drug use, as well as lower incidences of depression and suicide. Teen girls who dine with their parents and experience a positive atmosphere during those meals have lower incidences of eating disorders.

The reasons for these improvements are numerous and complex. First off, children require lots of time. They need to be educated, supported, nurtured and adored. But studies find that parents on the average spend a mere 38.5 minutes per week having meaningful dialogue with their kids. That’s simply not enough time to know what children think or want. Family dinners provide a built-in forum in which members can express their opinions while learning how to listen to others.

Family dinners instill invaluable lessons. Table manners, impulse control and social skills are taught alongside eating habits, nutrition and making wise choices. Children also watch their parents and absorb important messages about child-rearing, being an adult and maintaining a relationship.

Finally, self-esteem soars. When kids laugh and share with their families, they gain the strength to withstand all the psychological scrapes of their lives. They know others are available for guidance. They have a safety net in case they fall.

Don’t forget that family dinners are important for couples, too. When pairs make time to break bread together, they demonstrate their commitment to the union. They stay close as they share events. They say “I love you” one mouthful at a time.

Unfortunately, family dinners have become scarcer than lava lamps. “We’re way too busy,” I hear harried parents complain. Still, this is one tradition that can’t be discarded. Our loved ones’ well-being is at stake.

Tips for making dinner a family affair

To incorporate family dinners in your household, start with these ideas:

Start slow. If family dinners are completely foreign, begin with one each week. They may take time getting used to before they become routine.

Set a goal. Ultimately aim for at least two family dinners per week in your household. Making them a high priority increases the likelihood you’ll follow through.

Cook together. The best conversations happen in the kitchen. Preparing food as a family gives you plenty of time to talk and teaches youngsters nutrition, safety and culinary skills.

Find a night that works for everyone. Compare busy schedules in search of a convenient time. No one will feel left out. And members will look forward to the break in their routines.

Be flexible. Unexpected events crop up so it’s imperative to cut family members slack. Don’t make people feel bad if they occasionally miss a dinner. Still, hold firm in your conviction that you eat at the same time.

Keep the atmosphere positive. Make family dinners fun. Tell jokes. Share stories. Serve plenty of love and caring alongside the veggies and the grains.

Invite close friends. Encourage kids to bring their buddies home for dinner. You’ll create an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance while adding new personalities to the mix.

Celebrate events. Find daily successes to honor. An improved spelling grade or making the Varsity Cheer Squad deserves huzzahs over dinner.

Turn off all TVs and cell phones. Enforce an electronics-free period of time so people and conversation can thrive.

Keep meals simple. The people, not the menu, reign supreme during family dinners. Serve food family style in big bowls or make a salad bar so members eat what they want. You can even occasionally order pizza if time is particularly scarce.

Assess your lifestyle. If you and your clan can’t possibly agree on a common mealtime, unmanageable schedules may be to blame. Perhaps you’re taking on too many commitments or are over-scheduling the kids. Now’s the time to cancel some events on your BlackBerry to help you set your priorities straight.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com

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