The Family Table
The Family Table: A Place to Nourish and Nurture
By Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RD, FADA, CFCS
With today's hectic lifestyles and streamlined food preparation, family mealtime often gets sidetracked. Conflicting schedules, after-school activities, two working parents and volunteer commitments are among the many reasons.
Culturally defined, the traditional American meal pattern includes a main meal plus two small meals daily, or an alternative meal-snack combination. Regardless, relatively few meals are eaten together around the family table. The older the kids, the fewer the family meals. Project EAT from the University of Minnesota recently noted that middle-school-age children ate with their families five and a half times weekly on average, and high-schoolers an average of 4 times weekly.
Despite this reality, experts in nutrition, health, education and psychology increasingly support family mealtime, regardless of children's ages. Eating together promotes good nutrition, significantly impacts a child's emotional, intellectual and social development - and supports family communication.
Healthful Eating… Served at the Family Table
Nutritionally speaking, family meals make a difference. Kids who frequently eat with their families tend to eat healthier. That's especially true when family meals include fruit, vegetables and dairy foods - and when families establish expectations for joining in and eating what's served.
According to Project EAT, children who ate family meals more often consumed more fruit and vegetables, less fried food and significantly fewer sodas than their peers who didn't report regular family meals. And those frequently eating family meals consumed more calcium, folate, iron, fiber, vitamins B6, B12, C, and E and less saturated fat and trans fats.
Gathering for Family Meals
Family mealtimes promote social connections. Says culinarian Graham Kerr, "The home dining table is our last remaining gathering place. It's a place for friends and family to nourish the relationships that are at the heart of homes, neighborhoods and communities."
Especially when families linger over a meal - a practice more common in other cultures than the United States - family mealtime promotes close personal interaction. Benefits go beyond catching up on the day, building family ties and enjoying each other. Regular family mealtime also is linked to better emotional health, fewer risk-taking behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse and better school performance.
Making Family Mealtime a Priority
Fall is a great time to encourage parents to focus on family mealtime. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Set a regular family mealtime. Pick a time together.
- Enjoy more table time, less cooking time. Make quick, simple meals - canned foods are a convenient timesaver - to give more table time together.
- Turn off the TV. Turn on the answering machine. Focus mealtime on familytalk.
- Keep table talk positive. Everyone gets to talk and to listen. Sitting around a table, not side-by-side at the counter, helps.
- Keep table time realistic - not so long that the pleasure goes away.
- Meiselman, HL, Dimensions of the Meal: The Science, Culture, Business, and Art of Eating, Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers, 2000
- Story, M. "Family Mealtime; Impact on Diet Quality," Society for Nutrition Education Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, July 2004, and Project EAT, University of Minnesota, http://www.epi.umn.edu
- Kerr, G. The Gathering Place, Stanwood, WA: Camano Press, 1997
- CASA National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VII: Teens and Parents, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, www.casacolumbia.org
- Duyff, RL.365 Days of Healthy Eating from the American Dietetic Association. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004
- "Family Mealtime: Inviting Everyone to the Table," Society for Nutrition Education Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, July 2004
- "Position of the American Dietetic Association," Journal of American Dietetic Association, April 2004