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Family meals: A secret to your child’s success

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Sep 3, 2019

Want to know a secret to raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted children?  Eat meals together as a family as often as you can.  This one simple yet often hard to make happen activity is so important it should be a main priority of strengthening your family.  In our overscheduled, busy lives, sitting down to eat meals as a family is difficult. The struggle often stems from competition with conflicting schedules and other factors such as jobs, sport practices and games, school meetings, and club activities. But bringing back this basic tradition of family meals is your secret providing your child the advantage they need to succeed in this world. 

If several times a week, everyone in the family can sit down together at least one meal a day (usually dinner), will have a significant impact influencing your child in multiple ways. Even though a 2015 article in the Washington Post came out stating that eating alone is a fact of life for many Americans, children should be spared.  Children and teens need connection, social interaction and guidance from their parents. That’s why eating family meals together is one of the best ways introducing, establishing and equipping children with basic life skill tools. 

There are three main advantages your child will gain growing up having regular family meals:

  1. Improved academic success
  2. Improved family dynamics
  3. Improved eating habits

Improves academic success

Children and teenagers, who eat with their family often during the week, ideally at least 5 times a week, see the following academic improvements:

  • They tend to have better school grades
  • Families who discuss school events or what’s going on in the news at the dinner table have better communication and vocabulary skills
  • Children learn to take turns when speaking
  • Improves their social skills at school
  • Parents who actively talk with their children at meals show they care and have an interest in their learning
  • Better behavior at school

Research also backs this up – a report by CASA found that teens who have between five and seven family dinners per week were twice as likely to report receiving mostly A’s and B’s in school, compared to teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week.

Improves family dynamics

Magic happens when families gather together around a dinner table. This simple act of eating regular family meals helps your child feel connected to the family creating a sense of belonging and stability. When children and teens know that mealtime is a priority, they’re more engaged with their family and less likely to become involved with risky behavior.  This significantly impacts their view of life with numerous studies conducted to back this up resulting in:

  • Less likely to smoke cigarettes, try marijuana or other illicit drugs
  • Less likely to try alcohol
  • Less likely to  have friends who drink alcohol or use drugs
  • Your child wanting to talk with you about a serious problem
  • Feeling less stress and tension at home
  • More conversation with the family and a feeling of belonging
  • Better emotional stability

Improves eating habits

Extensive research has shown that frequent family meals promotes more healthful food intake in children and teens.  Studies show, children who grow up in homes where family meals are frequent, are more likely to consume less soda and fried foods and have higher intakes of key nutrients such as calcium, iron, and fiber. Family meals also provide the opportunity to talk about nutrition and healthy foods. Therefore, your child is likely to gain the following health benefits:

  • Less likely to skip breakfast
  • Less likely to be a picky eater
  • Increased consumption of fruits and veggies
  • Increased nutrient intake of all nutrients but particularly of fiber, folate, calcium and iron
  • Lower intake of processed foods and soft drinks
  • Overall better eating habits and behavior when parents role model these attributes and talk about healthy eating
  • A feeling of consistent attention and support by their parents which improve eating habits

Making family meals happen

Gathering the family around the dinner table frequently can be a struggle but it’s so worth the effort.  You don’t have to be a gourmet cook – eating occasional order-in pizza together qualifies as a family meal.  If having frequent family meals is not a part of your current lifestyle, it’s not too late to make it happen. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Look at your calendar and schedule in what days of the week will work. 
  • Consider having your family meal be at breakfast or lunch if dinner is not feasible
  • Involve your children in planning meals.  Look over recipes together, go grocery shopping and let them help out with cooking of the meal
  • Keep meals as simple or as elaborate as you want
  • Keep mealtime pleasant – avoid discussing bad behavior, grades, etc. – mealtime is a time to gather as a family and to enjoy the food and one another
  • Keep the TV, cell phones, computer off during a meal
  • Set the table the night before or early in the day
  • Be prepared by having simple ingredients on hand to make a quick meal

If all families across this nation would make family mealtimes a priority in their life, think how this could change the dynamics of our home life.  The simple act of sitting around a table eating food, keeping the atmosphere pleasant and enjoying one another’s company, could change our culture for the better in so many ways – one meal at a time.

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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