As dietitians, we’re pros at asking our clients about what they eat. But what about the “where” and “when” of that equation? For those of us who work with families, it’s also important to know how often they eat meals together and the dynamic of those daily interactions around the table.
On average, family meals last 18 minutes,1 but this simple activity of breaking bread together carries a long list of benefits, making those precious minutes well worth the effort.
The benefits of shared family meals to children are many, from improved eating habits and a healthier body weight to the promotion of language development, stronger academic performance in school, a reduced risk of disordered eating, and a lower risk of substance abuse.2,3
With such powerful health benefits, could something as simple as eating together improve the health of a nation where more than one-third of US adults are obese and nearly 50% of American consumers use at least one prescription drug each day?4,5
According to Harris Poll data from 2016, about 30% of US adults report sitting down to a family dinner seven nights per week. Another 30% eat together four to six nights per week. Not bad, right? But there’s room for improvement, especially for the remaining 40% who say they gather for family dinners just three times per week or fewer.6
The first step to encouraging family meals is to determine the barriers that make mealtime a challenge. The next step is to offer practical solutions aimed at making group meals more manageable. In a recent survey of my online community at Liz’s Healthy Table, I asked my readers to share their biggest family dinner challenges and their most delicious solutions.
Brenda, a mom of two, shared this: “My biggest challenge is the different ages of my kids along with meltdowns at 5 PM and trying to get dinner ready. I have my 18-month-old pulling on me and my 6-year-old playing and asking me questions. I haven’t had much success. One kid doesn’t like meat or any vegetable and is very particular. One is always starving at dinner and whining even with a snack. My husband gets home close to 7 PM, so we don’t eat together often. I eat on the go.”
Barriers experienced by Brenda such as picky eaters, distractions (including finicky toddlers, squabbles between siblings, and the blare of the TV), conflicting schedules, and a lack of time and planning, lead to frustration, but RDs are poised to provide palatable solutions designed to help families enjoy success at the dinner table.
Based on my personal experience raising two boys and the feedback from moms in my online community, here are nine family mealtime strategies designed to break through the most common barriers.
If picky eaters are the problem:
- Assign mealtime roles. Invite kids into the kitchen to plan, cook, and serve family meals. When children are allowed to pick and choose recipes, slice and dice ingredients, and set the table with colorful plates and napkins, they’re more likely to taste their new creations.
- Serve food family style vs preplating. Serving a variety of healthful and flavorful foods in large bowls and on platters (AKA family style) gives everyone in the family an opportunity to serve themselves and empowers children to choose foods that appeal to their taste buds and their appetites. It’s also fun for kids to follow the lead of adults and older siblings by serving themselves. Preplating, on the other hand, “tells” a child what and how much they “should” eat vs trusting children to listen to their own bodies.
- Customize meals. Set out build-your-own meal “bars” so kids can customize dinner to their liking. Some examples include build-your-own pizzas, tacos, twice-baked potatoes, pasta salads, and protein bowls. This strategy works especially well for preschool children who love getting their hands dirty. For children who are too young to help themselves, have them assist the adults in the family.
If distractions are shifting the focus away from meal prep and the dinner table:
- Set out activity appetizers. Dinnertime can be hectic for some families, especially when children are hungry and bored. To keep kids busy, set out a variety of edible appetizers—veggies and dip, sliced fruit, whole grain crackers and cheese—along with ‘activity’ appetizers like coloring books, Legos, and construction paper and crayons so kids can create menus for the evening’s meal. (Check out my e-coloring book series: Color, Cook, Eat!)
- Unplug from TVs and smartphones. Ninety percent of adults surveyed in a 2016 Harris Poll said cell phones don’t belong at the dinner table. But that same poll found that 37% admit to eating family meals in front of the TV.6 Children from families where TV viewing is a normal part of meal routines consume fewer fruits and vegetables and more pizzas, snack foods, and soft drinks.7 A clever way to enforce a “no screen time during dinner” rule could be to establish a penalty of dish duty for the family member who turns on the TV or uses a cell phone during dinner.
- Encourage conversation at the table. Family meals give children an opportunity to have conversations with adults and pick up on how adults use words with each other. Thus, family dinnertime helps build a child’s vocabulary.8 Tongue-tied for an age-appropriate topic of conversation? Buy a box of conversation starters or look online for conversation suggestions based on a child’s age.
If lack of time and conflicting schedules are preventing a healthful meal from landing on the table:
- Limit evening activities. Parents of teens report conflicting schedules as the number one reason for not sharing a meal together.6 When too many activities get in the way of family dinner, consider cutting back on the number of commitments in a child or teen’s day. And work with schools, community groups, and sports leagues to leave time for families to eat together.
- Plan meals. Not everyone was born with the “organized” gene, but planning meals ahead of time can prevent the last-minute panic at 5 PM when kids are famished and parents haven’t thought about dinner yet. Use a 7-Day Meal Planner to plot out meals for the week and a Supermarket Shopping List so the pantry is well stocked throughout the week. Consider doing all the grocery shopping on a Saturday or Sunday morning before the market gets busy and then spend a weekend afternoon prepping ingredients for the busy week ahead.
- Be flexible and creative. No time for a family dinner? What about breakfast? If everyone is around in the morning, then make breakfast the one meal of the day when the family eats together. Or cook and serve a festive Sunday supper if weekends are the only option.
Family mealtime can be a fun, comforting, and exciting daily activity for kids of all ages. Turning it from a chore into a cherished ritual carries a lifetime of benefits, nurturing both body and soul.
For more ideas and tips to improve family mealtime, visit the following resources:
- The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org
- The Kids Cook Monday: www.thekidscookmonday.org
- Food Marketing Institute National Family Meals Month: www.fmi.org/family-meals
- Sunday Supper Movement: http://sundaysuppermovement.com
— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast, Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks including No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover Moms, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.
- Fiese BH, Winter MA, Botti JC. The ABC’s of family mealtimes: observational lessons for promoting healthy outcomes for children with persistent asthma. Child Dev. 2011;82(1):133-145.
- Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of adolescents? Pediatrics. 2011;127(6):1565-1574.
- The importance of family dinners VII. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse website. http://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/importance-of-family-dinners-2011. Published September 2011.
- Adult obesity facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html. Updated September 1, 2016.
- Therapeutic drug use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics website. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/drug-use-therapeutic.htm. Updated January 19, 2017.
- Family dinner time? Better leave the cell phone behind. The Harris Poll website. http://www.theharrispoll.com/health-and-life/Family-Dinner-Time.html. Published June 7, 2016.
- Coon KA, Goldberg J, Rogers BL, Tucker KL. Relationships between use of television during meals and children’s food consumption patterns. Pediatrics. 2001;107(1):1-9.
- Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D. A perspective on family meals: do they matter? Nutr Today. 2005;40(6):261-266.