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The Importance of Family Mealtimes

Family life seems busy for all of us these days. Working parents, extracurricular activities, homework: sometimes it can seem impossible just to get everyone in one place! Although many of us might remember eating with our families at the dinner table when we were growing up, family mealtimes might seem tough to navigate these days. But, eating together as a family can offer many benefits for kids.

Studies show that kids and teens who eat meals with their families make healthier choices when it comes to food, eating more fruits and vegetables and less sweets, fried foods, pop and salty snacks. Eating together as a family also offers parents a chance to role model healthy eating habits for children, as well as teaching life skills like table manners. The dinner table is also often a place where cultural traditions are passed down from generation to generation. And, teens who eat meals with their families show lower incidences of risk-taking behaviour, like smoking cigarettes or using alcohol, and are less likely to experiment with extreme weight control measures. Sharing a meal together can be fun, and eating together at the end of a busy day can be a great way to reconnect.

While dinner is often the first thing we think of when family meals come to mind, some families might find this difficult due to schedules or shift work. Family breakfasts might be a more realistic option if one parent is coming home from a night shift, and they can be just as fun. Here are some other suggestions to get started.

  • Make mealtimes enjoyable. You don't have to go overboard, but wiping and setting the table can also set the tone for the meal. Perhaps you might even add some flowers from the garden. And of course, your kids can help!
  • Many parents are familiar with - and frustrated by - the one word answers that typically come with dinnertime questions like, "How was school?" or "What did you do today?" It can be more helpful to ask your children questions that are more specific, such as, "What was your favourite part of the day today?" or "When we pack your lunch for tomorrow, what would you like to put in it?"
  • You can also come up with some creative questions that allow your kids to brainstorm and dream a bit. Some parents like to ask questions such as, "If we could do anything in the world this weekend, what would you want to do?" or "What famous person would you like to hang out with?" These are great ways to get to know other sides of your kids.
  • Keep tough topics off the table during mealtimes. You might know your teen wants to go to a questionable party this weekend, or your third-grader might have been called to the school office today, but keeping the mealtime conversation positive helps create a pleasant atmosphere that kids will want to be part of. Although it might feel like meals are the only face time you get with your kids, resist the temptation to bring up the difficult topics until another time.

What to cook can also feel like a challenge for many families, especially when parents are working. For some families, it works best to have a schedule, for example, Monday is pasta night, and Tuesday is chicken. Other families prefer to try new recipes each week - it's really about what works best for your family. Planning and prepping ahead of time can be a huge time saver, and can help ease the stress of what can already feel like a rushed part of the day. Some other fun ideas could be:

  • Have a theme night. This might be a colour (everything on your plate is red) or a letter of the alphabet (on M day, you might have milk, macaroni, and meatballs.)
  • Try foods from a new culture. This can be a family cooking adventure, or sharing a meal with friends or neighbors from a different cultural background.
  • Have a buffet style meal, where everyone makes their own creations, either with leftovers, or with a food like fajitas or burritos. Or, have a sundae or fruit bar for dessert.
  • Family meals might inevitably be on the go sometimes, so rather than hitting a drive-thru, try packing a picnic dinner with easy to eat foods like wraps, berries, or muffins.

One important tip for busy parents is to do what works, and take the pressure off of yourself for mealtimes to be perfect. Mealtimes don't need to be elaborate affairs, and something quick and healthy combined with a positive and fun atmosphere will create many more happy memories than a stressful but picture-perfect spread ever will. So take a bit of time to plan your family mealtimes, and start making some memories around the table!

The Family Dinner Project - This grassroots, non-profit organization began to help increase awareness of the value of eating meals together as a family. They offer lots of great tips for meal ideas, as well as conversation starters, and ways to keep your tots or teens interested in being at the table.

Family Kitchen - Ready to get your children involved in meal preparation? This interactive site from the Dairy Farmers of Canada offers great information and tips to help your kids develop the culinary skills that will carry them throughout their lives.