Dinner time is often the one chance for everyone to sit down together, share a meal and discuss life’s events that day. However, in today’s busy world, this Norman Rockwell scene often is replaced with everyone jammed into the car and going through a drive-thru window. Did you know that families who sit together at home for three or more meals per week are more likely to consume:
- More fruits and vegetables
- Less fried food and soda
- Less saturated fat and trans fat
- More fiber, calcium, iron and vitamins B6, B12, C and E
When you think about these facts, it makes perfect sense that a home-cooked meal is going to be more nutritious than one purchased from the fast-food, drive-thru window. Most fast-food purchases include fried foods (chicken nuggets or chicken tenders, fries, fish fillets, onion rings) and a sugary-sweetened beverage, resulting in meals that are loaded with saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. When meals are prepared at home, they are more likely to include a fruit and/or vegetable, a lean protein that has been grilled or baked, a whole grain product and either water or low-fat milk to drink.
Two nutrients that most American kids do not consume enough of are dietary fiber and potassium. Additionally, we are not getting enough plant-based foods. Eating more plant-based foods can help easily increase both dietary fiber and potassium intake. Foods that are excellent sources of potassium include: acorn and butternut squash, avocados, baked beans, bananas, broccoli, cantaloupe, mushrooms, nectarines, kiwi, spinach, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, oranges, tomatoes. Dietary fiber can be found in whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta, nuts and seeds, beans (all varieties), berries, apples, pears, oranges, oats and peas to name a few. Adding these foods to familiar recipes or serving them by themselves is a wonderful way of improving nutritional intake at the dinner table.
Eating together as a family not only sounds like a great idea, research is showing that there are both social and health benefits that can be experienced by all family members.1 Additionally, children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times per week are2:
- More likely to be in a normal weight range
- Have healthier eating patterns
Additional benefits of family meal times include:
- Better academic performance
- Better connectedness and communication at home
- Better language and communication skills
- Opportunities to model healthy eating habits
- More family time
As our families grow and take on more extracurricular activities, it can be more difficult to have everyone sit down at the same time for dinner. Making time in everyone’s schedules for a family meal has benefits that go beyond nutritional health. In a report published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2011, they found that teens who consumed dinners with their families 5-7 times per week compared to those who sat down with the family less than 3 times per week were3:
- 4x less likely to use tobacco
- 2x less likely to use alcohol
- 2.5x less likely to use marijuana
To limit distractions, make mealtimes a no-phone zone and turn off the television. Remember to make family meal time fun! Discussing bad grades or negative events should not occur at the dinner table. Positive family talks can be stemmed from questions like:
- What was the best thing that happened today?
- What was the funniest thing you saw or heard today?
- Did you learn anything new today?
- If you could eat the same vegetable every single day, what would it be?
- What has been your favorite memory so far this year?
1.Family Dinner and Diet Quality Among Children and Adolescents. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:235-240.
2.Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Relate to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics, Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. May 2011.
3.The Importance of Family Dinners VII. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. September 2011.