From the Desk of Laura Bunker:
“Hi Mom, what’s for dinner?” used to be the most common question children hollered as they came through the door. Sometimes, hearing these words would induce a fair amount of stress on the busy parent who hadn’t yet thawed out the ground beef. Yet we might be disappointed to learn that this once-endearing-nature-call from our children may be becoming an echo of the past.
A recent report stated that in the U.S., “About 1 Million Kids are Now Eating Dinner at School.”
This new after-school-snack/dinner program is being hailed as something that “might help alleviate stress.” More than just a program for low income students, many busy families have actually expressed a desire for this program. They want their children to “come home already fed, freeing up time after school for sports, homework, or family activities.”
We may be missing the boat on this one. Dinner time is about more than food. The old saying still holds true, that “What your children really want for dinner is you!”
Today’s encouraging alert by UFI Intern Erika Walker discusses family mealtimes–how “the benefits of this ritual will well outweigh the trouble,” and how to make it happen in your home.
United Families International, President
The Lucky Ones: Dinner with Family
By Erika Walker
When I was in elementary school, I attended early morning choir practices that started an hour before school started. I remember passing the cafeteria as I walk down the hallway to the music room at 7:00 and seeing a dozen or so students there eating breakfast. At that age, cafeteria food was a novelty to me because I ate breakfast at home and most of my lunches were packed by my mom.
Most of the time I envied my friends school lunches that often featured pizza or nachos, a small serving of fruit cocktail, and a cookie, which at the time looked much more appealing than my ham and cheese sandwich and apple slices. I don’t know what was served before school, but when I saw the unhappy looks on the faces of the children who had been dropped off early, eating a cafeteria breakfast by themselves every morning, suddenly it wasn’t about the food, and I knew I was the lucky one.
Fast forward to 2010 when President Obama issued the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act for the funding of child nutrition programs, free or reduced price school lunches for more children, and new nutrition standards in attempt to reduce childhood obesity in America. As part of this Act, a pilot program was developed to provide free or low-price meals for those enrolled in the after-school program as well. That’s right, “as of last year, about 1 million students across the country received dinner or an after-school snack before going home.” And the demand for children to come home from school already fed is only growing. Speaking about the program, “Rachel Dunifon, a policy professor at Cornell University, stated ‘It could actually be good and open up more time for families.’”
What is ironic about that statement is that research has shown time and time again that of all the things that families can do together, the one thing that reaps the most benefits for children is eating together. Therefore, if we are trying to “open up more time” for anything, it should be family dinner. True, we all lead busy lives and at times it seems impossible to get the entire family in the same room together, much less keep them there for twenty minutes, but if done regularly, the benefits of this ritual will well outweigh the trouble. The key to realizing the benefits of family mealtimes is the setting.
Begin by eating at home. Today with our busy schedules and fast-paced lives it’s common for parents to give their children a pop-tart to eat in the car on the way to school and to pick up chicken nuggets on the way home from soccer practice because it’s convenient and they know their kids will eat it. However, “families who frequently ate dinner in the kitchen or dining room had significantly lower body mass indices for adults and children, compared with families who ate elsewhere.” This is likely because ready-made and fast-foods are frequently fried and/or high in salt, fat, and sugar.
Many people have the misconception that “cooking dinner” has to mean slaving away in the kitchen for hours on end. If time is what you lack, before defaulting to a drive-thru dinner, think instead about boiling pasta, pouring a jar of spaghetti sauce over top, and pairing it with a bag of frozen vegetables or bagged salad, and a loaf of French bread from the grocery store bakery. Voilà, dinner in less than thirty minutes!
Next, turn off the television (and other devices) and talk to each other. Dr. Barbara H. Fiese reports, “Many families watch television during meals; according to a CDC report, 46% of families interviewed had a television in the area where they commonly ate such as a dining room or kitchen.” Parents of young children reported turning the television on as a distraction technique in order to avoid conflict at the table.
However, studies have found that the presence of the television at meal times distracts from more than just conflict. “Evidence in adults and children suggests that television viewing while eating dampens attention to satiety cues” which in combination with the viewing of food advertisements leads to overeating which increases the risk for obesity.”
According to Anne Fishel, a clinical professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality. If family members sit in stony silence, if parents yell at each other, or scold their kids, family dinner won’t confer positive benefits.” The family dinner table provides the ideal setting for conversation. Conversations during the meal provide opportunities for the family to bond, plan, connect, and learn from one another.
So, rather than turning on the television, consider starting a new tradition in your home in which family members take advantage of this time to tell one another about your day. Make a game out of it by having each person share the high points and low points of their day. This not only helps to direct the conversation, but also gives family members a glimpse into each other’s lives and allows for bonding over the triumphs and losses of the day.
Family Identity and Emotional Well-Being
The benefits of eating together in this setting are significant.
As Dr. Fiese states, for starters, “being emotionally involved and genuinely committed to learning about the daily activities of others will likely result in feelings of belonging and group cohesiveness.” This kind of clear and direct communication at the dinner table is important for several reasons.
“First, positive emotional support is associated with better mental health for all family members. Second, when emotions can be expressed in a safe place, there are added opportunities for problem solving… Being able to problem-solve with other family members may provide multiple solutions to a difficult situation and also send the implicit message that your voice will be heard.”
In addition, Dr. Jerica Berge of the University of Minnesota Medical School noted that these opportunities for emotional connection among family members may even serve as a protection against obesity and other eating disorders because it offers “a supportive environment for emotion regulation and a sense of security that gives children the ability to regulate their own eating behaviors in their day-to-day lives.”
“Studies have shown that kids who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, and develop an eating disorder…When a child is feeling down or depressed, family dinner can act as an intervention. This is especially true of eating disorders, says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health… ‘If a child eats with his or her parents on a regular basis, problems will be identified earlier on,’ she says.”
Families who frequently eat meals together have also been found to be healthier and both parents and children are less likely to be obese. One reason for this may be that family meals are healthier than other meals because they often contain fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains. Kids who eat dinner with their families have been found to consume more fiber, calcium and iron. In other words, home cooked meals offer a more balanced diet.
Another reason family meals at home may serve as a protection against obesity is because you control your portion size. Restaurants typically serve large portions that are high in calories. In fact, “The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal. Studies show that when we are presented with more food, we eat more food.”
Eating at home and allowing children to serve themselves enables them to learn proper portion sizes and recognize satiety cues. Eating together also provides an opportunity to introduce new foods and “for adults and older children to model good eating behaviors in front of younger children.”
Let’s face it, most kids don’t love vegetables right off the bat, getting them to even try one requires a considerable amount of coaxing, as with most unfamiliar foods. I know if my parents hadn’t “encouraged” me eat salad growing up I probably still wouldn’t eat it to this day. But through family meals parents can expose children to different foods and expand their tastes by modeling such behavior and encouraging them to try new things.
In fact studies suggest that “a little more exposure and a little less ‘You can leave the table once you finish your broccoli!’ will teach kids to enjoy new foods, even if they don’t like them at first.”
Behavior and Achievement
Time spent conversing at the dinner table also reaps benefits in child conduct and achievement. More mealtimes at home was also found to be the single strongest factor in better grades, better achievement scores, and fewer behavioral problems in children of all ages.”
These findings have led some to question, “Do children reap those benefits because they have dinner with their families, or do the same families that have dinner together display other traits that account for higher achievement?.”
The answer is both.
True, children who regularly eat meals with their families typically have parents that are more involved in their lives, are aware of what they are learning in school, help them with their homework, etc. But “researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to… Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.”
Family meals also serve as a protection against adolescent risk taking behaviors. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), “eating family dinners at least five times a week drastically lowers a teen’s chance of smoking, drinking, and using drugs.” According to CASA researcher and vice president Elizabeth Planet, “While substance abuse can strike any family, regardless of ethnicity, affluence, age, or gender, the parental engagement fostered at the dinner table can be a simple, effective tool to help prevent [it].”
Essentially the protective nature of family meals can be attributed to the potential for parents to converse and reconnect with their children. Children benefit profoundly from parental involvement in their lives. The more time spent together, the more aware parents will be of their children’s needs, and the more able they will be to meet those needs. Government programs cannot take the place of a caring parent, nor should they be expected to. It is a parent’s responsibility to help their children become happy, healthy, and successful.
By simply having meals together at the table, and talking as a family, children will reap significant physical, emotional, and intellectual benefits. This is something all children deserve, not just a lucky few.
Erika Walker is currently a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho working to complete her bachelor’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies. As a wife and mother, she places high value on the institution of marriage and hopes to be able to help others establish healthy marital relationships.
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