Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I both work full time and we’ve hired a local college student to drive our three kids around to their various after-school activities. By the end of the day, we’re all too exhausted to cook, so we each grab a snack or make a sandwich and head off to our rooms – the kids do their homework while my wife and I catch up on email. We’ve talked about how nice it would be to have more meals together as a family, but we never seem to get around to making it happen. Any suggestions?
A: At the risk of stepping on Nike’s toes, just do it. Now. Having meals together as a family may sound kind of like a quaint throwback to some bygone era, it’s actually pretty important. To start with, when families regularly dine together, the kids generally eat better. In one recent study, kids who always eat meals with their family get five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, compared to only 3.3 servings for kids in families that never eat together. And they eat less trans-fat laden and fried foods and drink fewer soft drinks.
Family-meal kids are also more open to trying new foods and are less likely to become obese or develop an eating disorder. But the benefits of family meals go way, way beyond the food. Here are a few examples:
-Families that regularly eat together (meaning at least three or four times per week) generally are less stressed than those that eat together less frequently. In adults and kids, stress can lead to depression, anxiety, poor work and/or school performance, and increased suicide risk.
-When families eat together, they usually talk together. Kids have bigger vocabularies, are better listeners, and are better able to express their opinions civilly.
-Families that regularly eat together know each other better. And when children – especially teens – feel that their parents understand them and know what’s going on in their lives, they’re less likely to smoke and abuse drugs or alcohol. That’s big, because a child who makes it to age 21 without using illegal drugs, abusing alcohol, or smoking is virtually certain never to do so, according to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).
-Kids who eat with their family fewer than three times per week are more than twice as likely to get C’s or lower in school than those who eat together more frequently (20 percent vs. 9 percent), according to the CASA report.
Ideally, you’d start having family meals every night of the week. But that sounds a little overambitious for your family (and most others) right now. So I suggest that you ease into it. Start with once or twice a week. And in the interests of getting everyone on board, pizza or some other kind of takeout food is fine. While good nutrition is important, the face-to-face conversations you’ll have with your spouse and kids are more important. Over time, gradually switch to healthy home cooked meals.
Be sure to make family meal time relaxed and comfortable. If your kids suspect that sitting down to dinner is nothing but a ruse to grill and pressure, you’ll lose them immediately. It’s all about the relationships. Finally, make your meals electronics-free. No phones, no tablets, no TV. Focus on getting to know each other well.
Read Armin’s blog at DadSoup.com, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @mrdad.
By ARMIN BROTT