Eating meals together has many nutritional and social benefits for children. Kids who eat regularly with their families have healthier diets that contain more fruits, vegetables, calcium, iron, and fiber and less fat and soda than those who rarely join their families around the dinner table. Studies have suggested other advantages of eating together, including improved communication, better school performance, and decreased risk of substance abuse and unhealthy weight control practices.
Despite the many benefits of family meals, busy schedules can make it difficult for families to sit down for dinner together. Learn how to make family meals easy, fun, and meaningful affairs with these tips:
- Make family meals a priority. If your family never eats meals together, start by scheduling family meals twice per week. Make time for dinner on your schedule just like you would for soccer practice or piano lessons.
- Keep food simple. Family dinner does not have to be lots of work. Grilled cheese and tomato soup with a salad or spaghetti with meat and veggie sauce are both healthy, kid-friendly meals that take less than 20 minutes to prepare.
- Offer balanced meals. Each meal should contain foods from every food group. A complete meal contains meat or beans, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy.
- Practice portion control. Encourage children to limit meat portions to the size of the palm of their hand, and grain portions to the size of their fist. Fruits and vegetables should fill half of the plate for a healthy meal.
- Eliminate distractions. Meal times are more meaningful when family members can focus on each other. Turn off the TV, put cell phones in another room, and enjoy spending time with the people you love.
- Keep stress away. Avoid using meal time for serious or stressful conversations. Arguments, criticism, and unpleasant topics have no place at the dinner table.
- Promote meaningful conversation. Go around the table and give each family member uninterrupted time to talk about their day. Encourage and support your children as they recall their successes and challenges.
- Make it fun! Make meal time fun and special. Try having a picnic on the floor, eating by candlelight, or using a bit of food coloring to make your mashed potatoes blue. These changes are memorable and fun, especially for younger kids.
- Forget about the clean plate club. Encourage kids to try all of the foods offered, but don’t force your child to eat something he doesn’t like or to eat more than she wants. These practices turn meal times into a battle and may promote an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Let your child help. Encourage your child to participate by setting the table, helping prepare food, or washing dishes. This teaches useful skills and helps your child to take ownership in family meals.
About our Expert – Leah Sabato
Leah Sabato, RD, LD is clinical dietitian in the Lipid Clinic and on the 3 West General Pediatrics floor at Dayton Children’s. She loves working with children and their families and believes that good nutrition should be easy, tasty, and fun!