Do family dinners really make a difference? The short answer- yes!
According to the Huffington Post, "studies have shown time and again that eating together has multiple benefits for everyone involved, but especially for children, and not for nutritional purposes but in many other aspects as well." Some of these benefits include:
Better weight management
Healthier food choices
Better academic performance
Teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
Children have better relationships with their parents
Parents experience a decrease in stress levels
Despite the numerous health benefits, eating together as a family has become increasingly more difficult over the past 20 years. Overall, regular family dinners held around a table have declined by 33% and the time families spend eating together has decreased from 90 minutes to less than 12!
Why the decline? It's certainly not ignorance. A study conducted by the Food Marketing Institute Foundation discovered that 84% of parents agreed that eating together as a family was important. But, making family dinner time reality has its challenges.
If parents are living in the same home, both of them are most often required to work- and for long hours. As a parent, if you're not completely exhausted by the end of the day then chances are you're so constrained on time that take-out truly feels like the only option. This is even more true for homes run by single parents. But, parents aren't the only ones with increasingly busy schedules.
Too many after-school activities is actually the number one reason families decide not to eat dinner together at home. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota showed that as children age, they tend to pile on both sport and non-sport activities that often occur at or around dinner time, creating significant inference with such a vital part of a family's day.
And let's not forget the stress of dealing with picky-eaters and the struggle to find meals that everyone will enjoy. Even in a perfect world with wide-open schedules, no parent wants to deal with sighs and grumbles over food. Take-out is not only fast, but it typically leads to happier mouths and fewer headaches- in the short term, at least.
Family dinner time can not only seem challenging but downright impossible. However, by making some small, steady adjustments (aka forming some new habits) regular family dinners can actually become a staple practice in your home.
For the time-crunched families: easy meals, meal prepping (or at least prepping some of the ingredients), and taking advantage of healthy pre-made food options (yes, they exist. No, it's not cheating) can save you tons of time and stress at the end of a long day. Ideas include:
Frozen vegetables and grains with no additives. These can be steamed, boiled, or even microwaved for a quick side dish that you can perk up with a few dashes of low-sodium seasoning.
Pre-made burgers and other already prepped protein options- including whole grain chicken nuggets or strips.
One-pot meals like spaghetti, stews, and soups- some of these can even be made in a slow-cooker that you can throw together quickly in the morning.
Salad kits or fresh pre-cut veggies save you tons of time and won't heat up your kitchen
For the too-many-after-school-activities families: Consider dropping down to the most favorite after-school activity. Ask your kids what they would prefer to do. You may just find that your kids appreciate not being overscheduled (just like you do!). Although it's great to keep kids involved, the truth is more activities can cause problems and stress, and there is no benefit to anyone being overscheduled. If you find that dropping activities aren't an option, then consider bringing picnics to sporting events for before or after- you can even get your kids to help with the planning and prep-work the night before. Remember, there's no reason to get super fancy (ideally, this isn't an extremely stressful process). Simply pack up some sandwiches, fresh veggies, fruit, and some chips and you're set!
For the picky-eaters-and-stressful-meal-planning families: Get your kids involved in choosing, preparing, and/or cooking at least one meal a week. Children of all ages love when they have a say in the plans for their families, and this includes dinner. The autonomy and independence given during these moments might just make it easier to convince kids to try new foods and eat healthier options. Also, one of the best parts of family dinner is the conversation. Have fun with kids by asking questions and telling stories- they'll forget to complain! Need some ideas? Visit SAFFP's Family Fun month page for 31 questions to start asking your kids at dinner.
Like any habit change, if you push too hard, too fast you're likely to fail. If your family currently spends most nights away from the dinner table, it's probably not the best idea to set a goal of eating dinner at home every day from here on. Start with just one or two nights a week. Once that starts to feel comfortable, consider adding a third, and so on. Keep the conversation about these changes flowing with other family members to see how they're feeling about the changes and most importantly- enjoy spending more meaningful time together!