What if I told you that there was something you can do right now that could help your child succeed in life? Would you do it?
What if that something only involved about an hour of your time a day, and could result in fewer emotional difficulties and symptoms of depression for your child, as well as better emotional well-being? How about if there was the potential that it could decrease the likelihood that your child would become addicted to drugs, and could improve their overall health?
What is this magic thing, you say?
You might be surprised to hear that what I'm talking about is simply having family meals with your children.
Now I say simply, but I know that when it comes down to it, it may seem simple but it is actually much harder than it looks. With the busy lives of school-aged children and adolescents nowadays, so many families have a hard time getting everyone together for meals. I get it. I know it's complicated. It only gets harder the older the kids get, too.
But here's the thing. Having a planned and consistent family meal with your children has so many potential benefits it's worth figuring out a way to make it work. At least for a minimum of a few times a week. The claims I made above about all the good that family meals can do? They're backed up by research (1, 2). That's just the tip of the iceberg, too. There are so many benefits to having meals together.
So that's it?
Well, as with everything, there is a caveat. The family meal needs to be pleasant. It needs to be a safe space where you as a family come together and share stories and talk about what happened during your day. It's not a place for fights, or a place for power struggles about food. It's also not a place to have screens. The family table is a place where everyone needs to feel welcomed and secure.
Does it matter what I serve?
The most important thing to family meals is the environment you create around them. The food you serve is secondary.
With that said, you should try to make the food healthy overall. Finding healthy meals you enjoy making and eating can help to make family meals more pleasant. If you think you have to make something that you don't enjoy, meals tend to be something you don't look forward to.
It's a great time to teach good eating habits and manners, also, and it wouldn't hurt to take advantage of that.
My kid's only 6 months old/in preschool/already in high school, does it still matter?
YES! Absolutely to all of those. Starting family meals as soon as your baby is old enough to sit in a high chair sets the stage for how the rest of their life will be. It teaches them how to use silverware, drink from a glass, and take bites of food.
If your kid is in preschool and you've never really made family meals a thing, there's no time like the present to start. It can help them to learn manners, and can decrease picky eating in the long term as they get older. Unfortunately, as magic as family meals are, they won't prevent picky eating completely. It's a developmentally appropriate stage that many kids go through, and the goal is to reduce the length of time it lasts and encourage balanced eating when they're older.
If your child is in high school, the chances are good that they have a fairly busy and active life. That doesn't mean they can't be expected to be at family meals if at all possible. Maybe family meals at this stage need to be breakfasts, maybe your child is only at dinner 2 nights a week as their schedule allows.Having a set family meal time that your child knows happens, even if they aren't able to be there, can provide a tremendous amount of structure and stability.
I'm sold! But seriously, I don't have the time...
Like I said above, I get it. It is easier said than done. There is also no perfect solution that will work for everyone. Getting into meal planning on the weekend might be best for some families, encouraging your older children to help with prep on the nights they are home might work for others. Getting takeout occasionally isn't a bad thing here either, as long as you sit down and eat it together. A combination of freezer meals, meal planning, and quick, throw together staples tends to work for most families.
I'm the first to say that on nights my husband and I don't want to cook our fallback is a veggie frozen pizza. If we're on top of things it was homemade and frozen, but lately that hasn't happened. It's still a good meal, and we still sit down and eat it as a family. It's enough.
Make family meals a priority, even if you start out with 2-3 meals a week. Your kids will thank you for it when they're older.
To help get you started, here are a few resources I've gathered:
- My recipe resources roundup post, to help you find some of those staple meals
- Follow me on Pinterest for lots of great ideas for quick and easy meals and snacks
- A list of quick, healthy meals from a fellow dietitian, to help get you started with meal planning
Do you have any tricks that you've found for getting meals on the table? Let me know!