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The importance of family meals

Posted at 3:00 PM on January 11, 2008 by Nanci Olesen

Here’s a good new year’s resolution: resolve to eat meals together regularly with your family.

There’s new evidence that it’s healthy in a number of measurable ways.

In a recent Harvard Study researchers found that family dinners were more important to children’s language development than having parents who read to them or play with them.

Nutritionally, we tend to eat better when we eat as a family: there’s a study from the University of Minnesota that states that when we eat together we eat more fruits and vegetables, drink less soda pop and eat less fat.

Another study brings together a decade’s worth of data. This study found that older kids are more apt to need meal time with their families.

Researchers claim it works like a kind of vaccine against drug and alcohol use. Teens feel accountable when they’re sitting down to a meal with their parents on a regular basis. And parents can check in and see how their kids are doing.

We don’t have to have insightful conversations at these meals. The simple act of eating together as a family has an affect on us that’s positive.

I checked in with people from our Public Insight Network to find out if they prioritize eating as a family. Not surprisingly, I mostly heard from people who said they felt it was important to eat together as a family. Jamin Johnson-Schneider has 3 kids. She says that the way she’s raising her kids is crucial to who they become:

Family will make or break how our children turn out and showing them that being together whether it’s sitting together eating or sledding down a hill helps them to grow up into good people.

I also talked with Lauren Sanders. She’s got three boys. She calls herself the glue that holds the family together. Her husband didn’t really place much importance on sitting down together, but she’s talked him into it:

He learned through experience that when he sits down and makes himself present, that the children really respond.

And Phil McConville, whose kids are grown and flown, loves to eat dinner with his wife every night. He’s the cook and he knows that she really appreciates the glass of wine he offers her as she comes in the door:

It’s useful for her psychologically to be able to come home from a really hard day and know that someone’s here caring about her.

I didn’t hear anyone say that they didn’t think it was important. I think most of us know what it feels like to open a can of soup and eat it straight out of the can, cold, standing in the kitchen at midnight. I wasn’t expecting anyone to say that they found that method of food consumption preferable.

But I know that eating dinner together as a family can be difficult to manage.

You have to juggle schedules.

You need to plan menus and find time to make the food.

And you need to get the right groceries into the house.

So how about blocking your family dinners out on a calendar?

If you’ve got a working calendar with everyone’s activities on it, you can try to schedule the meals for the time when the most people can be there.

What about staying off the phone as you prepare the meal? And letting the phone go to voicemail during dinner? This could improve concentration and communication.

The mere act of getting groceries in the house and preparing the food in a timely manner is a real skill. Some people have that skill set from when they were kids. Others might want to get better at it. Still others might not like to cook.

Easy meals with minimal preparation might be the key.

It’s a good idea to plan a menu for a whole week. Post it on the refrigerator so everybody can see it. Then make a grocery list from the menu, do some shopping, and figure out who's going to cook each meal. Can some of the preparation take place in the morning before work? Or the night before?

We use the crock pot at least three times a week. Our kids help with our grocery shopping. We trade off cooking. Sometimes the kids even prepare meals. Sometimes one of us phones last minute directions (“turn the oven on to 350 and put the chicken in!”) as we depart from work. We also have a set schedule of which kid sets the table and which kid cleans up.

I talked to Barbara Haber, author of From Hardtack to Homefries: An uncommon history of American cooks and meals. She serves on the board of an organization called Spoons Across America. She says families need to think through what the obstacles are which are stopping them from eating together:

Families need to ask what is it that would keep them away from one another at a dinner hour and try to figure out how some of that can be fixed-- not seven nights a week certainly-- but certain nights a week. Then build it up within the group and see if that can work.

Eating meals together as a family is a good new year’s resolution.