New research has identified a powerful prevention tool in the fight to keep our children fit and healthy: Family meals. We already know that eating dinner together has psychological benefits. Regular family dinners have been said to help prevent behavioral problems, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts in children. Now we hear that eating together as a family reduces the risk of childhood obesity by 12%, and increases the chances of your children eating healthy foods by double that amount.
Knowing family meals are what’s best for kids doesn’t make it any easier to make them happen. Juggling schedules and appetites can be so daunting that many, if not most parents throw up their hands and feed the family whenever time allows. How do you eat together as a family when one, if not two parents doesn’t get home until well after your kids are ready to eat?
It would be great if parental work schedules could be designed around the times kids need us most. But unfortunately, that’s not the world (or at least the country) we live in. So we have to find ways to work within the existing, less-than-ideal structure to maximize family dinners. This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. When Ceridwen Morris and I were doing the Parental Advisory column for Babble, we answered more than one question on the topic. One big area of concern was how to handle the fact that kids don’t seem hungry for dinner at the time adults are hungry, or even available:
“Kids’ eating needs do not always coordinate well with the meal schedules adults expect. After-school hunger cannot be denied. Then dinner rolls around, and kids are stuffed full of snacks and have no interest in anything but dessert. We often find ourselves in the frustrating position of struggling to finish a meal while our kids snack themselves out of eating it. You, or whoever’s with them in the afternoons, could think about ways to satisfy their pangs without ruining their appetites for later. You can try limiting snacks to right after school, allowing for an appetite-building buffer between then and dinner. Or you can try choosing snacks that don’t fill them up: veggie sticks and dip, edamame, olives, apple slices. The key is something to keep them busy and placated without getting full.”
So there’s tip 1: Let kids snack first, but don’t fill them up. You can also consider the double dinner approach, where you feed kids when they’re hungry and then sit down together when the working parent(s) get home.
2. Prep in advance if you can. Spend a weekend afternoon prepping for the week, or even cooking things to be reheated.
3. Let kids help with the prep process. You may have to sacrifice some efficiency, but you will gain in your kids’ engagement and interest in the meal.
4. Don’t get too worked up about the quantity of food actually consume at the family meal, especially if the timing is not ideal for their hunger. If they eat healthy snacks or a light early dinner before and just pick at the family meal, they’re getting the idea that this is what the family eats when they’re together.
5. Family dinners don’t have to be 100% attendance every time. Though full family buy-in might provide the most benefits, kids will still gain from sitting down with one parent. And a sibling who’s out at an extra curricular activity or a playdate elsewhere is not the end of the world. You’re not trying to create the perfect version of family dinner here, just your version.