BY BROOKE ORR, MS RD LDN, ACSM-CPT
The fast-paced pre-COVID-19 lifestyle made it difficult to gather everyone at the table for traditional family meals. However, a slower pace and being at home more may not be enough to bring the tradition back. A recent survey found that 72% of respondents say they grew up eating at the dining room table, but only 48% do so today. Additionally, the couch has nearly tripled as the primary eating place (from 12% to 30%), along with the bedroom (6% to 17%). Eating on the sofa or in bed while watching TV is growing in popularity among families. Using taste, smell, sight, and sound at the same time is an effective way to turn off your brain and completely distract yourself from life’s stressors. Sophie Mort Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says, “Eating and watching TV can offer a quick hit of dopamine, the pleasure chemical.” Clearly, there are some positives to the occasional pizza and movie night, but making this the family norm may do more harm than good. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health encourage family meals, stating that the growing body of research suggests that shared family mealtimes influence the quality of food that children and teens eat (family meals correlate with increased intake of fruits and vegetables). Many studies also found that setting these patterns during childhood and adolescence leads to more healthful meal patterns as young adults. Understanding something is good for you and actually making it a habit are two different things. The tips below may help guide you in making family meals great again!
Get everyone involved. Allow your kids to help plan menus and prepare dinner with you. This adds quality time to the process and empowers children to try new foods (it is okay to have pancakes for dinner, put some berries, Greek yogurt, and scrambled eggs on the table as well for a well-balanced meal).
Don’t make “Clean Your Plate” your mealtime mantra. Parents are responsible for providing a balance of foods at mealtimes (a fruit, vegetable, protein, and starch); children have the right to decide which foods and how much they will eat.
Celebrate an attitude of gratitude. Research shows practicing gratitude has positive benefits on mood and general happiness. The dinner table is the perfect place to model gratitude practice for your children. Go around the table and say one thing you are thankful for that happened that day, something kind you did for someone else that day, or something someone did for you that made your day better.
Know your audience. Be reasonable about the amount of time you expect your kids to spend sitting at the table. Many families find as little as 20-30 minutes is enough time to practice gratitude, share about their day, and eat their meal.