Eating dinner together is one of the most important things you can do as a family. In fact, as a registered dietitian I sometimes feel like I spend more time preaching about the act of eating together than I do talking about the actual foods you put on the table.
Of course what you eat is important too – but what many people don’t realize is that what you eat and how much you eat is intrinsically linked to where you eat, how you eat and who you eat it with.
If kids don’t get used to regular mealtimes, or if snacks and meals are grabbed on the go from whatever convenience foods are available, they are more likely to suffer from dietary problems like overeating, obesity and/or a lack of key nutrients in their diet.
But beyond the basics of healthy nutrition, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that family meals are an opportunity to nurture enjoyment of food, of each other, and a deeper sense of connection between members of your family.
The point here is not about hard and fast rules. It’s about setting up your life so that eating together becomes normal, not the exception. Here are some tips to help make that happen.
Make a plan. If you don’t do this already, making a weekly meal plan can be a great way to ensure a healthy diet and help facilitate family mealtimes. It means you can plan ahead, even cooking the night before, and it reduces the temptation to improvise a PB&J sandwich for the kids and letting the adults fend for themselves later.
Go easy on yourself. Remember, this is not about super-strict regimentation. If the idea of getting a full meal in front of your family at the end of the day has you daunted, then plan for something easy like a salad, or put a variety of ingredients on the table and have them make their own tacos or sandwiches. Heck, even eating a frozen meal or takeout together at the dinner table is a huge step forward.
Have fun. It’s important to communicate to children that family meals are important, and that they are expected to attend, but you should be careful not to make them a chore. Make sure you include plenty of fun, kid-friendly options, and be sure to engage kids in conversations or fun games as you eat.
Share the responsibility. Family dinners shouldn’t be a chore for Mom or Dad either. Find ways to share the responsibility. Even if one parent works during the week and the other is home, look for ways to switch roles on the weekend or on special nights of the week. As the kids get older, you might ask them to pitch in too – our daughter loves making pizza with Dad.
Take breaks. My husband and I try to have “date night” once a week. Sometimes that means a steak dinner once the kids have gone to bed, sometimes it means going out to a restaurant. But we consider it an important part of connecting with each other, without kids, which is crucial to ensuring that the whole family stays happy. From time to time we also eat out as a family, or we adults do our own thing.
Like most things in the world of healthy eating, rigid regimens and strict rules are not going to help in the long run. Instead, we need to build a healthy, flexible and enjoyable relationship with our food.