How (and why) to increase the number of family meals at home

Family meals have long been an American tradition. During the past several decades, however, the American family has undergone radical changes—and family meals have changed at the same time. And as family meals have decreased, so has the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual health of our children.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat, that I hope will be both eye-opening and helpful to you and your family.

SuperSized Kids is on clearance sale here.

While most American families have abandoned the traditional “Cleaver family” meal, a whopping 80 percent of American parents still believe it is important. Yet, today’s adolescent eats only about one-third of his meals with his family, and up to 32 percent of teens report rarely eating meals with their families.

Why don’t parents and children eat together? Two words: schedule conflicts.

The American family is busier than ever. In most households both parents work, many times until well past the dinner hour.

Children have several extracurricular activities that last into the evening—sports, music lessons, outside classes. And as they get older, they want to spend more time with their friends and develop a sense of autonomy.

Do you find it an increasing challenge to bring your family together for meals? Do you feel tempted to forgo family meals because you can’t see how to squeeze one more thing into an already overcrowded day?

Before you totally write off family meals, take a look at the benefits of families eating together.

Children from families who eat together have better nutrient  intake because they eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more  milk. They also eat fewer fried foods and drink less soda.

Research  has also found that children who eat with their families make better  food choices when they don’t eat at home and are more likely to eat  breakfast.  (See: Family meals reduce risk of children being overweight)

Other benefits also exist, aside from the nutritional ones. One  survey found that teens who eat five or more meals a week with their  families are more likely to earn A’s in school.

Kids who have more meals with their family at home report lower levels  of stress. And they are less likely to smoke, drink, or use illegal sub stances.

As much as possible, keep to a regular schedule for family meals  and snacks.

You may do fine when eating on the go, but this probably  doesn’t work as well for your children. Remember that a regular routine is not only much better for your health; it’s also more satisfying  for your child.

Try hard to make mealtimes as pleasant and fun as possible.

We all  enjoy our meals more and tend to eat better when we face fewer distractions. This is especially true for children. So turn off the TV and  mute the ringer on the phone.

Surveys have shown that if parents are  on the phone or watching TV during meals—even if the kids are  right there with them—the children interpret it as not really having a  meal with their parents.

Why? Because the parents are not focused on talking to them or finding out how their day went. If you’re allowing phone calls or other distractions to interrupt your mealtimes, then realize that your children will likely perceive your meal together as not really a meal together.

So, as much as possible, get rid of distractions. This tells your children that they, and your family meals, are important. We all know that modern life wouldn’t be the same without the telephone, but during dinner or after a set time at night, don’t answer it. Let the answering machine earn its keep. When our kids were growing up, Barb and I allowed no phone calls during dinner and after a certain time at night.

If the phone rang during dinner, we let the answering machine get it. We wanted to give their children the message that they were more important than any phone call. Whatever it was could wait.

It will take some planning and forethought to pull off regular, healthful family meals. But it is worth it for the health and well-being of your children. Here are a few tips that might help make dinner-time more enjoyable:

  • It is difficult to put a healthy meal on the table if you wait until ten minutes before mealtime to decide what to make. So set aside one hour to plan the menu for the coming week. Then put together your shopping list. This will save both time and money at the grocery store.
  • Involve your children in the meal-planning process.Worksome of their favorite foods into the menu as often as possible. They will feel that you considered their preferences and will be more likely to enjoy the meals.
  • Balance is the key. Have a blend of whole grain carbohydrates, a protein of either animal or plant origin, vegetables, and nonfat dairy products. Serve desserts sparingly.
  • Use fruit, nonfat yogurt, or nuts to top off your meal. Consider  fruit as “nature’s best dessert”! A colorful fruit salad, a baked  apple with a dash of cinnamon, or frozen grapes and blueberries  can supply just the right amount of sweetness to end any meal.
  • When your schedule falls apart, a well-stocked pantry and freezer can be a lifesaver. Have these items on hand:
  • For a quick sandwich, have whole grain bread, lean meats (from the deli counter, not prepackaged), and canned tuna;
  • to a steaming pot of vegetable soup, add whole grain pasta and canned beans and serve with whole grain crackers;
  • for a colorful salad, have washed greens (the  darker the better), precut vegetables, raisins, and chopped nuts.
  • Even when you’re in a rush, you can put a healthy meal on the table!
  • Maximize the appeal of your meals by using herbs and other  seasonings (go easy on the salt). And have a mixture of soft and  crunchy foods for a variety of textures.
  • Try to have two or three courses at a meal; dine instead of merely eating. Getting up between courses to clean off the used plates and prepare for the next course will encourage you to move dur ing the meal, allow you more time to digest your food, and will  give the family more time to talk. If you can’t do this every  evening, then at least do it as many nights as you can. Perhaps  you could serve a salad first, then the main course, then some  fruit for dessert.
  • Stock your kitchen with small plates instead of big plates. Dinner plates have put on a few inches during the past several  decades. What used to be a nine-inch dinner plate is now, on  average, twelve inches. Try large saucers instead of dinner plates.  This will make it easier to control portion sizes.
  • Let your children serve themselves. Children tend to serve them selves smaller portions than parents do. In one study, children  were offered three sizes of plates, all filled with food. The chil-  dren tended to eat everything on the plate—but the child who  ate off the small plate felt the same degree of fullness as the child  who ate off the largest plate.

Keep an informal diary of what you eat at dinner. (Research shows that the average family eats between nine and ten dinners together per month.) Once you determine the foods that you eat most often, ask yourself, “Which of these do we consider the least healthy? Fried chicken? All-meat lasagna?” Then, as a family, come up with a substitute meal for the next month.

Our household replaced all-beef lasagna with a vegetarian lasagna made with soy crumbles and whole wheat pasta—easier and faster to cook.

Until then, no one could have gotten a soy crumble past my incisors. But I really could NOT tell that it wasn’t Barb’s regular lasagna.

The next month, fried chicken became a lemon herb chicken that we and the kids loved.

Over about six months we changed all our dinners to things they really enjoyed as a family.

You have to pick and choose; consider it a longer-term experiment. You really can come up with some outstanding and fun alternatives.

The bottom line is that the more meals you share as a family, at home, the more highly healthy you and your children will be.