Thanksgiving conjures up images of families sitting around the table sharing a meal and fighting over the last piece of pie. Whether you will be eating turkey or your own cultural version of a Thanksgiving meal (I’ll take lechón, thank you very much!), breaking bread together might be a unique experience in your daily life.
Between work, school, practices, after-school clubs and all of our many other responsibilities, it can be difficult to get the family to sit together for dinner every night. However, you may want to rethink the mealtime experience. You have probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal in the day, but you might be surprised to learn just how important the act of eating a meal together as a family is for you and your children.
Frequent family meals have been found to have several far-reaching benefits for the mind, body, and soul. For example, young children who regularly enjoy family meals have greater vocabulary and reading skills. Mealtime conversations create an opportunity for children to expand their vocabulary and try out new words in a safe environment.
Academic success is not just limited to young children, though. Teenagers who eat more frequently with their families tend to have more A’s and B’s than those who eat together only a couple of times a week. They also make better life choices. In several studies, teens who ate family meals regularly were less likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, or engage in other high-risk behaviors like sexual activity, disordered eating and delinquent behavior.
Not surprisingly, eating together as a family also has a positive impact on nutrition. Researchers have found a clear association between the frequency of family meals and higher dietary quality noting that children and adolescents who regularly eat with their family have a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, higher intakes of micronutrients such as calcium, iron, and various vitamins, and lower levels of consumption of soda, higher-fat foods, unhealthy snacks and cakes, fried foods, and fast food.
The benefits of a family meal extend to parents, too. Parents who have time to come home and participate in a family meal are more likely to report job satisfaction. Additionally, parents who have jobs that did not interfere with family mealtimes have stronger relationships with their spouses and children.
But what exactly is happening at the family meal that makes it so impactful? Mealtime offers a venue for the family to come together and talk about their day, plan activities and problem-solve. In this way, parents can learn about the everyday goings-on in their children’s lives. This provides a foundation for easy, open communication that can be a gateway to more difficult conversations about sensitive topics. It also allows children to understand that their parents are interested in their lives and that they are a priority. Importantly, everyday encounters like this can help parents identify changes in their child’s patterns such as clothes, friends and mood, which can be indicators of bigger problems. Ultimately, this is an opportunity to build and strengthen the parent-child relationship.
While Thanksgiving provides a great opportunity to have a family meal, it should not be the only time we make it a priority. Try to schedule family meals at least three to four times a week. Encourage all family members to help plan, prep, and cook meals. Make your family meal a gadget-free zone to minimize distractions. Use the time to connect, tell jokes, and recharge. If you need some inspiration on just how to make family meals a regular activity, check out thefamilydinnerproject.org for tips, recipes, and more.