Mealtime Magic

By Nettie H. Francis
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Eating together regularly doesn't require any special tricks and can have a powerful effect on every member of the family.

"Abracadabra...poof!" Many a frustrated parent has imagined being able to say these magical words, with the wave of a wand over one's home, instantly instilling good manners in one's children, ensuring their healthful eating habits, and strengthening family ties. You don't need a magic wand or word, however, because there is a way—which many parents today may remember from their childhood—to acquire the above-mentioned benefits. The answer: Have a regular family mealtime.

With planning, even days packed with appointments and activities can afford a family mealtime.

Studies show that families who eat together on a consistent basis enjoy nutritional, academic, social, and emotional advantages.

However, despite the well-documented benefits of eating together, some families feel that it really would take a magic wand to bring them together at mealtime.

"According to Tufts University, national studies show that more than 80 percent of parents consider eating dinner with their children very important, but less than 50 percent actually sit down together on a daily basis," Sheila Gains, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, wrote in an article on the extension Web site.

Aptly named, the article is titled, "Family Mealtime: A Menu for Opportunities." One of these opportunities is for good nutrition. A Harvard medical study indicates that families who eat together are more likely to have [the recommended] five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, consume less fried food and soda pop, and have a higher intake of nutrients. Children who see their parents make good nutritional choices and model good table manners are likely to do the same.

The benefits of family mealtime don't stop with good nutrition and good manners. There are also academic and social advantages.

Eating family meals has been associated with "improved school performance" and "fewer behavioral problems," Gains reported. Such meals are important because they "provide opportunities for children to learn vocabulary-building words that help them read well."

Perhaps even more important than the nutritional and intellectual advantages, however, are the emotional benefits of eating together. "There is a relationship between the love in a home and the richness of the family table," writes Dolores Curran in her book Traits of a Healthy Family (Ballantine Books, 1984). Having a regular mealtime develops a sense of belonging, trust, and security in children. It is a time when conversation can flow freely and family relationships are strengthened.

"Mealtimes provide a setting for moral and intellectual discussion where family values are shared," Leah Davies writes in "Is Family Time Important?" The article appears on the Web site of the Bend, Oregon-based certified teacher, counselor, and creator of character-building curriculum materials. Her observation underscores the importance of meals as a bonding time in which family members develop a sense of who they are and what they stand for.

In the same article, Davies warns that "if you are too busy to have family meals, you may be too busy." With ever-increasing demands on families, such as soccer practice, music lessons, and parents who both work, what is the magic formula for making mealtimes successful?

For starters, tell your children and their friends that mealtime is important to you and be firm when keeping it a family time. Then, reinforce your resolve by putting into practice one or more of the following suggestions:

Plan ahead.

With a little forethought, even days packed full of appointments can afford a family mealtime. Sheila Gains suggests, "Learn to use the Crock-Pot" so that a meal is ready as soon as you walk in the door or purchase the main dish (pizza or a bucket of chicken) on your way home, and then supply the salad and fruit to go with it. On days when circumstances won't allow everyone to be at home at dinnertime, "pack a picnic dinner to eat together at the soccer field," she adds, or, if one parent is working late, "take dinner and the children to the office" and eat in the break room. On days you do have time to cook, "make enough for 'planned leftovers'" and reheat the next evening or freeze the extras for later.

Flavor to taste.

The family meal doesn't have to be dinner. Customize mealtimes to fit your family's needs. When I was growing up, my parents chose to make breakfast the family meal of the day. Because my dad worked evenings, dinner as a group wasn't a consistent option, so we all got up early in the morning to eat breakfast together before we kids left for school.

Delete distractions.

Eating side by side doesn't qualify as a family meal if everyone's attention is on something other than each other—like a TV set. Some years ago, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., surveyed 287 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade children during one week and found that more than 42 percent of dinners were eaten while watching TV. "These findings are troubling," one of the researchers who conducted this survey, reported at an American Dietetic Association meeting. Results were disquieting, said Dr. Karen Cullen, a behavioral nutritionist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because "family meals are important for children from both a nutritional and a developmental standpoint." Families who watch TV during meals miss important opportunities to talk and communicate. Turn off the TV. Let the answering machine pick up phone calls.

Keep it positive.

Use mealtimes to share good news from the day. Avoid negative conversation. Listen attentively as children speak. "My family didn't do anything particular at mealtime, but we always made each other laugh," remembers Loren Roth of New York, N.Y. There is something almost magical about sharing food and sharing feelings in a comfortable atmosphere.

Share the load.

Many hands make light work. Involve children in the preparation of meals or setting the table. Family involvement increases family together time and teaches children important kitchen skills. Ask for family members' ideas as you plan menus and involve them in the grocery shopping.

Add some spice.

Surprise your family by doing something different. Fix a fancy meal—like a turkey dinner with all the fixings—for no apparent reason. Or, put a personal note on everyone's plate or bring out the good china. Invite family members to bring a poem or short story to share during the meal. Or, simply light a candle and play some soft music.

With a little creativity you can keep mealtime family time. The benefits will be priceless, almost like magic.

Nettie H. Francis also wrote "Family Training Camp" in this issue.

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