Let’s All Sit Down for Dinner!

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Depending on who you ask, adult, child or teenager, everyone has an opinion or a memory of family mealtime. Some will comment that they miss them more than ever, especially if they are new college students or single in a new city.

O thers will smile with a tear in their eye as they recall special favorites Mom or Dad prepared and set in front of them—spaghetti, goulash, hamburgers on the grill, homemade chicken noodle soup or meatloaf. “My dad told us if we weren’t at the table at 6:00 p.m., we didn’t get to eat,” a friend shared. “We had a huge family, and this was true because the food would be gone in minutes! We had to eat what was there, even if it was our ‘trees,’ which meant canned asparagus, which to this day I can’t stand!”

No matter how you feel about them, those family gatherings around the table represent a dependable tradition we count on. As parents, we create our own version of the family meal, whether it is vegan, gluten free, dairy free or keto. There are plenty of websites that will give you delicious alternatives to meat or gluten-filled foods. For example, try sweet potato and black bean meatball enchilada bake, five-bean vegetarian chili, or lentil barbecue shepherd’s pie. There are alternatives to white flour everywhere, from almond to rice flour, that can keep bread and biscuits a part of your repertoire. Don’t panic if your teenager goes vegetarian; keep the family together by accommodating her. You will all learn in the process to experience and enjoy new concoctions.

Aviva Goldfarb, family dinner expert and Washington Post contributor, notes in her blog, “Family dinners at our house are central and centering. In the mornings, one or more of us races out of the house by 7:15, exchanging few words. After school, my husband and I work, and Celia (our daughter) often has ultimate frisbee practice, homework or other commitments. But at 6:00 p.m. most days, I am in the kitchen pouring my energy into making dinner for our family.”

Her words ring true for so many in today’s event-filled world. There is truth in the idea that the family that eats together stays together. Eating meals around the table has the full potential of strengthening family bonds in addition to providing all-important family time. Younger children feel a sense of security and a feeling of belonging, while older children and teenagers, too, prefer eating together as a family. In a recent Columbia University study, 71 percent of teenagers said they consider talking, catching up and spending time with family members as the best part of family dinners.

Studies have also shown that, not surprisingly, teens who eat dinner with their families make healthier food choices and consume more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods, and they have diets higher in nutrients such as calcium, iron and fiber. This is also the perfect opportunity for parents to expose their kiddos to different foods and expand their tastes. Plus, an average restaurant meal with no portion control has nearly 60 percent more calories than a home-cooked meal.

Here’s another overwhelming fact from a report by CASA that will encourage you to either prepare a meal or bring home some healthy takeout. Teens who have between five and seven family dinners a week were twice as likely to report receiving As and Bs in school, when compared to students who ate fewer than three family dinners each week.

On the happiness meter, research has shown that children who eat regularly with their parents are emotionally stronger and have better mental health. At the same time, mothers who ate with their families were happier and less stressed no matter the intensity of their job or career. Young children who eat regular, nutritious home-cooked meals, and who are involved with preparing and serving those meals, are also less likely to be overweight or obese.

Make your time for family dinner your own, with your family’s personality in mind. For example, one family might focus on good table manners, while another might use the time for communicating, learning how to listen and respect one another. Above all, don’t discuss things that will embarrass or humiliate family members. Save some topics for a private talk, one on one.
Family dinners should be a time for respite from the hurried pace of life. Be sure to divide tasks so Mom or Dad alone is not responsible for all tasks. The chores and joys of feeding, nurturing and cleanup should be shared.

Bon appétit! ■

Sources: thescramble.com, shelikesfood.com, goodnet.org and stanfordchildrens.org.