Primary Eating

The family meal is a multifaceted wellness tool.
Savor time with kids during summer vacation with seasonal dishes like lobster bisque. Photo: Andrew Montgomery

By Tapp Francke Ingolia, MS

I have emphasized the family meal since my children were babies. I felt that the family table was the best place for my children to learn manners, patience, the art of conversation and the importance of a shared meal. I see the meal as a time of nourishment, both from the food you eat and from the people who join you at the table.

A 2012 research brief published by Cornell University states that children who engage in family mealtime appear to have better psychological and physiological outcomes. Family mealtime has been linked to lower levels of depression in young adults, as well as lower levels of delinquency, greater academic achievement, positive family interactions, improved psychological well-being, less obesity and better food choices. Though some of the positive outcomes may be related in part to socioeconomic class, family structure and food security, family mealtime appears to take its place among the important tools parents can use to make their children feel safe and heard. Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Pediatrics in 2011 found that those who engage in family meals are 35 percent less likely to have disordered eating, 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods and 12 percent less likely to be overweight.

The family meal, as implemented in my house, is one meal. You all eat together and you all eat the same thing. There is no difference between adult food and kid food. As parents, we are acting as food role models. In monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, children who watch their parents eat healthy foods will more likely be willing to eat them themselves. The family meal gives caregivers the unique opportunity to influence their child’s future eating habits by modeling good food behavior and a healthy attitude toward food. Children are like sponges. They soak up the behaviors of the people around them and imitate them. If you model a good attitude toward food and healthy eating habits, the child will pick up on that and imitate you. The essential thing here is “do” and not just “tell”—meaning, if you tell your child to eat their broccoli but don’t eat it yourself, then you are not acting as a positive model. Children will follow your actions more than your words.

These healthy eating habits can dictate a child’s future health. Poor childhood nutrition, according to a 2018 study, is associated with an increased risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and hearing loss. According to the CDC, the empty calories from added sugars and saturated and trans fats make up as much as 40 percent of the diets of children between 2 and 18 years. Most young people do not meet the basic Recommended Dietary Allowance recommendations of fruits and vegetables. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., emphasizes in his book Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right that the foundation laid in childhood has implications throughout adulthood in terms of the functioning of the immune system. The habits made early on will be the habits that they will be more likely to have later in life.

So how do we manage our busy schedules and find time for this all-important family meal? Here are some suggestions on how to make that happen:

Plan for it. Make that family time a priority.

Set a goal of at least three family meals per week. The more the better. Researchers have shown that having three to seven family meals per week yields the best results.

Involve your children and other family members in the cooking process.

Create a routine. For example, every Sunday night is family night. Or Tuesday night is taco night. These routines  give all family members something they can both anticipate and depend on.

Make mealtime a safe zone. This is the time when you get together and discuss your day. I like to go around the table and do a “highs and lows” of the day. This is not a time for criticism.