25 May How Family Meals Improve Mental and Physical Health from NYC Nutritionist
Every day of the calendar year there’s a holiday. You can celebrate National Pancake Day (September 26), National Cherry Day (July 16), even National Tater Tot Day (February 2). A little “ew” on that last one. Anyway, many are about publicity – selling products. Others are about bringing awareness to a problem, a need. National Eat Dinner Together Week, for instance, is sponsored by the National Pork Board.
Regardless of who sponsors this food week, celebrated in September, I’m on board. I feel like we’re at this strange crossroads in life (this could be me waxing nostalgic) where our children and grandchildren are losing some fundamental life experiences – one of them the family meal.
Everybody’s busy. I get it. Kids have homework, sports, after-school activities, friends, screens and videogames. Parents have deadlines and bills and schedules to keep. In the crunch of fitting everything in, for some reason, family mealtime has taken a backseat. Eating dinner as a family, though, makes a huge difference in our children’s mental and physical health, as well as our own. So, this September, and every day (when possible), celebrate Eat Dinner Together Week.
- Family meals help establish healthy eating habits. Children develop a better relationship with food. They are more likely to eat healthier options and try more foods. Everyone is more likely to get their fruit and veggie needs met.
- Family meals can help reduce childhood obesity. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, and the epidemic of unhealthy kids is real. Carving time to sit together as a family is a very basic way to tackle this problem. Sitting at the table, we generally eat more slowly, listening to our body signals when we’re full. Instead of rushing through a meal, we sit together to enjoy the meal. Moreover, family meals generally have fewer ultra-processed, Frankenstein foods, which are proven to cause weight gain (as well as well as chronic disease.)
- Family meals help children improve self-esteem. Self-esteem, academic performance, and body image all improve when families eat together. Children develop a stronger sense of belonging. Family meals create safe spaces where kids can talk about their day, learn about their parents’ days, resolve issues at the table. Mealtime becomes a place where children learn to navigate the world. And, this, in turn, makes them better readers. (True!). They learn more vocabulary, debate about national policy, embellish stories about their days, and more.
- Make mealtime a priority. Just as we calendar in after-school activities, doctors’ appointments, business dinners, meetings and more … so, too, should family meals be put on the calendar. Mealtime should be a sacred part of the day. This means phones and TVs are off. Everyone sits together – whether it be a picnic in the park, on the terrace, even in the living room or sitting at the kitchen table, island, or dining room table. It’s not about where the meal takes place, instead that it takes place.
- Teach mindfulness. The world is now warp speed. Sit down at the table. Pay attention to the food on your plate – the colors, textures, flavors. Say, “Thank you,” for the meal. Teach your children the same – to pause before eating, to be grateful.
- Involve kids in planning meals and cleaning up after meals. Everything from grocery shopping to chopping vegetables to helping wash dishes. The meal doesn’t begin with the first bite. This, too, is part of mindfulness.
- Establish a “no-one eats alone” rule in the house. Whenever anybody is eating, somebody will be there to accompany them. It’s a great way to have children learn that mealtime is something to share. I recognize that sometimes schedules can be hard to juggle. There are some days that it’s simply impossible to get the family at the table all together. That doesn’t mean, though, that the person sitting at the table should eat alone.
I worry that children today aren’t taught the essentials to build a healthy, long life: breathing well, eating well, standing tall, loving what their bodies are capable of, self-love have gotten lost to a blur of social media and screen time.
Stop. Take the time to establish the importance of family meals in your home.