Johnston: Family meals have nutritional, social benefits for all ages

Between work, community activities and running errands, meals on the go have become a staple for many American families, my own included.

I spend my day running: work, school, soccer practice, clogging, and whatever else the kids are involved in. Finding time to feed everyone is a struggle, let alone sitting down at the table to eat it.

During my years studying child development, I came across a great deal of research about family meal time.

Armed with that knowledge, I tried hard when my son was born to implement the family meal and to have a goal of sitting around a table together a few times per week.

It was difficult and it didn’t always look like I wanted it to, but one day, my son came home from kindergarten and gave me a picture he had drawn. He was asked to draw a picture of his family and above is a picture of the drawing he showed me.

I have kept it because it reminds me family meal time has had an impact on him and it’s worth the effort, no matter how difficult it may be to work into the schedule. 

Taking those few extra moments to sit down for a meal with your family fills more than just your stomachs. Sitting down to a family meal is one of the easiest proven methods to enrich your young person’s life. Psychologically, regular family meal times are proven to help youth do better in school on tests, homework and general intellectual development.

Social benefits include better social adjustment, especially for teenagers; less likelihood of using drugs, alcohol or smoking; and stronger family bonds.

If these benefits aren’t enough, there are also nutritional benefits. By having these regular meals featuring healthy, nutritious foods, you are helping your young person develop healthy eating habits, leading to a decreased chance of being overweight.

I’ll be the first to admit fast food makes its way onto my table, but I try to get home-cooked meals on the table as well.

Involving the whole family in meal preparation can cut down on time spent “working” while maximizing bonding time.

My kids love to ‘help’ cook the meal. That ranges from measuring and pouring to stirring and cutting.

My 6-year-old daughter is a pro at peeling potatoes and carrots, so she usually wants to make one of those vegetables for dinner so she can peel them. I’m not going to turn down the extra help and there is the added bonus of her wanting to eat what she helped make.

Setting the table, pouring drinks or helping clean up are other ways to involve everyone in the process. The whole family investing in the meal makes it more enjoyable and less time-consuming.

Everyone’s schedule is different, so make these meal times work for you. Keeping them quick by meal planning or having an easy-to-make recipe is most time-efficient.

Remember meal times don’t have to be every night; work around your family’s availability. Even just one or two meals a week can make a lasting impact on your family.

Many people think family meal time only refers to dinner, but that’s not true. Sitting around the table for breakfast on Saturday morning counts too and is sometimes less rushed, which allows you to enjoy the conversation and bonding time.

The quality time you can get from a family meal is invaluable.

The goal is to have undivided attention between family members. Try to make a rule about no electronics at the table to allow for quality family interactions.

Talk about your day, family memories, possible vacations or fun questions that can involve everyone.

We have implemented these types of questions so much in our house my kiddos now lead the conversation. It feels great to hear my son ask my daughter what her favorite part of the day was and for her to then respond with asking him how he did on his spelling test. They are learning so much from each other and about how to interact.

The kids often keep the adults honest. There have been a few times I reach to check my phone and the kids will remind me we can’t have phones at the table.

I hear you, busy parents. It is difficult to find time to sit down together at the table. But please hear me when I say how important those moments around the table are.

It can literally be 5 minutes as you wolf down pizza before you head to your next scheduled activity. You can make a lifelong impact on your family in that short amount of time, as it really boils down to quality, not quantity. And it is never too late to start new traditions.

Use this recipe to make dinner and start a new tradition and restart one that has gone to the wayside.

It will be good for everyone.

Shonda Johnston is the Clark County Extension agent for family and consumer sciences. She can be reached at 859-744-4682 or by email at shonda.johnston@uky.edu.