Adapted from articles written by Lynda Johnson & Tammy Roberts, Nutrition and Health Education Specialists, University of Missouri Extension
Following more than 10 years of research, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University consistently found that kids who eat dinner with their families are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs.
Lynda Johnson, University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist, said family meals are not only a simple, effective tool to help prevent substance abuse in kids, but are also good for children’s nutrition.
“Many child experts indicate that regular family meals are one of the best ways to help children and teens be fit, healthy and ready to succeed,” said Johnson. “Young people who spend more time eating and talking with their families are more likely to do well in school, maintain a healthy weight and get the nutrition they need. They are less likely to use drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and less likely to develop eating disorders. They are also less likely to have sex, get into fights and have thoughts of suicide.”
Family mealtime helps foster a sense of connectedness for children and provides an opportunity to focus on family communication. Positive conversations during meals are ideal for strengthening family relationships, sharing family values and helping parents understand the challenges that children face today.
In addition to the opportunity for family interactions, family mealtime is also the ideal setting to teach children the benefits of healthy eating. Johnson suggests using mealtimes to show kids how to eat slowly and enjoy their food and to talk about how eating healthy foods helps people grow strong and have energy.
In 2001, CASA launched the annual Family Day to remind parents that frequent family dinners make a difference. The initial focus of Family Day was to promote the importance of eating and talking together at mealtime and to encourage family meals even if you aren’t a great cook. The focus should be on the time interacting together, not on creating an elaborate meal. The meal can be as simple as ordering a pizza or picking up a rotisserie chicken, and then cooking a vegetable and/or preparing a salad to go along with it.
Some quick-to-fix ideas from USDA’s Nibbles For Health include adding canned or frozen vegetables to tomato or chicken soup for a quick main dish. Mix chopped lean ham or deli meat and cooked vegetables with macaroni and cheese. Or, serve chili over a baked potato or rice as a main course.
Johnson said that planning and cooking meals together offers many of the same benefits as eating together. Children who help prepare the meal are much more likely to consume it. Involve children in making food decisions especially when it comes to vegetables, like having them choose between broccoli or carrots, for example. Assign each family member a task — making the salad, setting the table, preparing the beverages or slicing fruit for dessert.
Busy families can start simple and schedule one or two meals a week together. Once a routine is established, the family can gradually increase the number of meals to as many as possible.