While the dining table is sure to get extra attention this Thanksgiving, experts say that eating as a family shouldn’t just be reserved for special occasions. A child psychiatrist and a registered dietitian explain why kids benefit when families regularly eat together and offer tips to make mealtime easier year-round.
“Dedicating screen-free time to eat as a family tells children that they are important and that the family unit is important,” says Dr. Mercedes Kwiatkowski, child psychiatrist with Palo Alto Medical Foundation in the Bay Area. “When you prioritize time together, doing something that fosters connection, you are building a foundation for the family.” That foundation consists of good communication, a supportive environment, shared culture and morals.
Parents can benefit, too. “Moms and dads have told me that they feel pride and joy when they’re able to provide healthy meals to their kids,” explains Elika Vargas, registered dietitian with Sutter Delta Medical Center. “It’s gratifying to give to others, which is a good lesson to teach kids.”
Here are some tips they both give to make the most out of having family meals together.
Focus on quality over quantity. The goal, according to Dr. Kwiatkowski, is to make eye contact, be available and engage in what your children want to tell you – not to spend a certain amount of time at the table. “Even 20 minutes, a few times a week, can dramatically strengthen social bonds and closeness,” she says. She also notes that consistency can be helpful because kids thrive with structure, but don’t let the pressure of a strict schedule keep you from starting.
Involve your kids. An easy way to help your kids feel invested in family meals is to involve them in the process. If you’re just getting started with your routine, you can ask your children what day or time of day would be best.
“This gives them some agency, and they might surprise you, for instance, by saying they want a big brunch on Sunday,” said Dr. Kwiatkowski. Kids can also be given responsibility related to the meal, helping to shop, prep, cook, set the table or clean up after for example. “This ‘job’ time is an opportunity for them to open up and talk to you about what’s going on in their world,” she said.
Vargas agrees and sees another payoff: Family meals are a chance to teach nutrition. Studies have shown that families who regularly eat together eat more fruits and vegetables and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. “Kids watch everything we do, including what we put on a plate or in our mouth,” Vargas said. “You can use mealtime to explain how certain foods help your body and why it’s important to try new foods.”
Make it fun, not formal. Play music in the background and rotate who gets to choose it. Change the place settings to fit different themes. Make a festive drink or set the mood with lighting. There are countless ways to make a regular occurrence feel like a special occasion and doing so will help you and your kids look forward to shared meals. “Keep the menu simple and shop in advance,” says Vargas. “Meals that are planned in advance tend to be more nutritious and less stressful.” She also suggests using pre-cut, pre-washed and partially cooked foods to save time if making a home-cooked meal.
Eat until you’re satisfied. Vargas says that an important “food value” formed at the table is knowing when you’re satisfied. “You want to show kids that they don’t have to eat everything they’re served or ‘clean their plate,’ rather you want them to be able to recognize when they’re satiated.” Kids form their future food choices and overall relationship with food early in life, so what they learn at the table has long-term implications on how likely they are to overeat or consume unhealthy options like fast food as adults.
Encourage expression. Try to avoid fraught or upsetting conversations at the table. “I like open-ended questions,” says Dr. Kwiatkowski. “For example, instead of ‘What did you learn at school today?’ I ask, ‘What’s one thing you did today that you’re proud of?’” Other options, she says, are: “Who did you sit with at lunch?” “What game did you play at recess?” “How are your friends doing?” The last one recognizes that it’s often easier for kids to talk about others than about themselves. The key is to avoid nagging or placing emphasis on achievement. “I also establish a safe space, where any topic is OK, as long as the exchange is respectful,” Dr. Kwiatkowski said.
Rolls and role-modeling go hand-in-hand. Both experts emphasize that eating together allows adults to model good behavior for youngsters. “We all have setbacks and hard emotions, virtually every day,” says Dr. Kwiatkowski. “I encourage parents to be honest with their kids, for example: ‘I had this difficulty today, and this is how I’m handling it.’” Doing so, she says, gives children the language to talk about their own struggles and a blueprint for navigating uncomfortable feelings.
Vargas agrees and says another behavior that is important to both physical and mental health is to slow down, be present, and actually savor the meal you’re eating. “Food can be a great source of enjoyment, but too often we rush through it, missing the color, texture, smell and taste.” Distracted or hurried eating can lead you to consume more calories, increasing the risk of obesity.
Turkey Day Could Be a Good Start. The Thanksgiving holiday could serve as a starting point to have more meals together as a family and make them more meaningful. You don’t have to wait until New Year’s Day to make this resolution; put your love, caring and nurturing on display at the dinner table, today!