Family Dinner: Rx for Healthy Kids
By: Bonnie Schiedel
Want to raise happy, healthy kids? The answer is deceptively simple: Eat meals together. Studies show that kids who regularly eat at home with their families have a healthier diet, are less likely to struggle with weight issues, are less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs, have a lower incidence of depression, get better grades and feel like their parents are proud of them. Wow. Why is breaking bread together so important? "A family meal is time to talk together. Everyone's opinion gets shared," notes Timothy Smith, a family coach in Thousand Oaks, CA, and author of Connecting with Your Kids: How Fast Families Can Move from Chaos to Closeness. "When kids have a safe place to share opinions, it helps their self-esteem, which is the background factor in those studies." Donna Murphy, a mom to three kids aged 8, 10 and 11 in Fort Collins, CO, finds that mealtime promotes togetherness. "For us, it's decompression time," she says.
Easy Ways to Make Family Dinnertime Special
- Involve everyone. "My kids all have jobs to do. Around 5:30, when I'm cooking dinner, they come to set the table properly, get drink orders and help with cooking," says Murphy. "We work together as a team, and that sets the tone."
- Add a special little touch. If you're serving a favorite meal, post a menu on a chalkboard or whiteboard (use symbols for preschoolers), suggests Smith. "Kids love anticipation!" Once in a while, light candles and pour milk into dollar store plastic wine glasses. If you're serving plain old PB&J sandwiches, spread a blanket on the living room floor and have a picnic.
- Develop rituals. "When my girls were small, we always had Taco Tuesdays," says Smith. "They were in charge of setting the table, which included putting a sombrero in the middle, and playing Mexican music on the stereo. This kind of fun routine gives kids a feeling of security." Make television and fast food a special treat, not a four-days-a-week routine. "Friday night is pizza and movie night in our house," says Murphy.
- Play games. Murphy's kids love word games, so they sometimes play a spelling one. For example, one of the kids will say, "mom, did you know that if you take the 'd' out of 'mud' and add 'te' you get 'mute?'" Then someone else says, "ok, take away the 'm' and add a 'c'" and so on.
- Ask fun questions. Five years ago, San Francisco-area mom Cristy Clarke began jotting down quirky questions while she was waiting for her three girls (now 11, 13 and 14) to finish up various lessons and activities. Then she'd put the slips of paper in a basket in the middle of the dinner table, and they'd take turns discussing the questions. Some family favorites: "When is it ok to lie?", "What is your ultimate ice cream sundae?" and "What is your favorite family tradition?" "Family dinners became a lot more fun. The girls really looked forward to the questions, and it was especially good when my husband and I were exhausted from the day!" says Clarke. (And talk about pay-off: word spread to other parents. Clarke turned her questions into a thriving business called Table Topics, and now sells boxed sets of the question cards.) She adds that some of her customers like to put a question card under each person's plate. "Kids love to discover a hidden surprise."
- Chill out
On the other hand, a relaxed meal is the name of the game, so do what works for your family. "I used to do the 101 questions thing, but I'd get blank stares," laughs Murphy. "I realized the kids have been in school all day and don't want a million more questions. So we just eat. Soon, though, they start talking about their day and we have a conversation."
Kaboose TV: We asked three moms why dinner time is important to them. From surprise menu nights to strategic dinner table seating plans, find out what they said - watch videos now.