How often would you say your family sits down together to share a family meal? Whether it be breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner, the physical, mental and emotional benefits of family eating even one meal per week together has been researched and proven to be sound.
Benefits range from better academic performance and higher self-esteem in school-age youth to lower risk of substance abuse and obesity in all family members. So, parents, if you haven’t yet insisted on at least Sunday dinner every week as a family, you are missing out on some great protective factors for your kids. Also,if your family needs more convincing about the benefits, see: https://food.unl.edu/documents/The%20Importance%20of%20Family%20Mealtime.02.01.10.pdf .
While researchers at https://thefamilydinnerproject.org have found sharing a family meal to be good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members, some families may find it stressful to sit down together and have a meaningful conversation. The good news is there’s help for struggling families and even those who want to maintain or improve current family mealtime experiences. LaCee Jimenez, USU Food Sense (SNAP-Ed) Coordinator, provides four key tips to make family mealtime a success in your home.
- Plan and prioritize. Make family mealtime a priority by planning it in your day. Plan when, where, and what you will be eating. Let your family know that it is important for everyone to be present. Take time each month (or a few times a month) to plan your meals. This can help you save time and money throughout the month.
- Make it work for your family.Is family dinnertime not working? Try family breakfast, lunch, or afterschool snack time. Just take time to sit together, share a healthy meal (or snack), and connect as a family.
- Ditch the electronics.With so much socializing happening online, we can lose touch with the art of conversation. Help your family spend time together undistracted by turning off or putting away cell phones and other electronic devices. Parents, this includes your devices too!
- Keep it simple and fun.Family mealtime doesn’t need to be a source of stress. By planning your meal and involving the whole family in the prep and cleanup, you can keep it from being a burden. Also, don’t put too much pressure on yourself that it has to be a certain way (see tip # 2). Use this time to talk about your days and fun memories. Avoid discussing topics that may lead to contention: discipline, etc.
Families that aren’t accustomed to sitting down together for a meal without distractions may find it somewhat awkward to face each other and carry on a meaningful conversation. Even families who do sit together and chat regularly may eventually fall into the habit of talking about the same topics repeatedly.
One solution to keeping the conversation alive during a family meal is to use Conversation Starters. There are variations of this activity but the overall objective is the same—keep conversation going. It begins simply with a jar or container holding pre-written questions. Each family member has an opportunity to draw and ask a question—it can be answered by the person who draws or include all family members. A set of questions can be printed from:
https://extension.usu.edu/fscreate/ou-files/2017-18_staff/ConversationStarters-OY-Aug2017.pdf or you can make up your own.
Samples from the USU Extension site above include: Describe your dream vacation; What makes you happy when you are sad; What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without; and If you had $100, what would you do with it?
Questions do not need to be included for every mealtime- especially if you eat together often. However, having questions nearby can become a fun and informative part to your meal.
Kathleen Riggs is the Utah State University Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Professor for Iron County. Questions or comments may be sent to email@example.com or call 435-586-8132.