Contributor: Sara Lappe, MD
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Fall is just around the corner, and with the cooler temperatures comes a busy, back-to-school schedule packed with homework, practice, sporting events, meetings and so much more. That’s not to mention a never-ending list of chores and household tasks.
With all the running around and chaotic schedules, it’s easy to unintentionally drop beloved family time. Instead of sitting down to a family meal, everyone either grabs a quick bite between activities or scarfs down food in separate spaces while doing work, watching TV or playing on the computer.
While 50 percent of American families eat dinner together at least five nights per week, many eat together much less than that. Family mealtime is a time to stay in touch with one another, and it can improve everyone’s health.
Connecting family members
Why is the family meal so important? It connects the family.
Taking the time to sit together, without distractions, can help you keep in tune with your teenager’s social troubles, check in on his or her mood and learn about important events that happened throughout the day. Studies have shown family mealtime increases positive social skills, school engagement and decreases the frequency of negative behaviors.
The family meal also give you the opportunity to set an example.
Mealtime is the perfect time to model good eating habits for your child. If you’re trying something new and enjoying it, your child may notice this and want to try it too. If you model healthy habits – avoiding fad dieting and not restricting or bingeing at meals – your child will surely take note.
Studies have shown that women who engage in family mealtime are less likely to have eating disorders. In addition, children who share frequent family meals are more likely to eat a larger number of fruits and veggies and be less fussy about food.
How to make family dinners a priority
Most families want to increase the frequency with which they eat meals together but are challenged by busy schedules.
Many parents feel overwhelmed with their job schedules; and that, combined with children’s school schedules and the demands of home, lead to quick, on-the-road dinners instead of sit-down meals.
Although it may seem impossible, there are ways to make family mealtime happen, without added stress. Here’s how:
Make it simple. I encourage you to remember that mealtime does not need to be a three-course meal that took two hours to prepare. It can be a bowl of soup, breakfast for dinner or a mixture of leftovers from the fridge.
Pack dinner to eat together. If your child has a busy schedule and you’re going to be hopping from one practice to another, pack dinner (like you would pack a lunch), and sit down after practice to eat it together. It could be on a blanket by the field, on a nearby picnic table or even perched in the back of the minivan.
Involve the whole family. Encourage your kids to help with meal prep. Teenagers can be in charge of cooking a portion or even an entire meal. Young children can be given simple tasks — tearing up lettuce for a salad, cracking eggs or setting the table. Involving your children will make them more likely to eat the meal and more likely to acquire healthy eating habits.
Be creative. If dinnertime just isn’t going to work with your schedules, make it a family breakfast. Five to 10 minutes in the morning before school is a good time for a family check-in session, too.
Turn off electronics. Shut off the TV, phones, computer and any tablets to ensure the dinner table is an electronics-free zone for everyone — kids and adults alike!
Remember to listen. It seems like a silly reminder, but it’s one we need to hear from time to time, especially when busy schedules seem to take over. Even if it’s just for five minutes, take the time to listen to your child and hear what he or she needs or wants to share. Ask what the best part of the day was, and ask about stresses.
This fall, I challenge you to take my family meal challenge: Try to eat together as a family at least one additional time per week. Not only can this help improve your family’s health, it can also improve your family’s overall relationship.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.