The benefits of having mealtime as a family mealtime extend beyond nutrition, helping you to connect with your children and promote healthy eating habits.
Growing up on a farm in Kansas, the dinner table was always a special place for my family.
During Sweet Corn Season in the summer, my parents, brother, and I would gather at the table after a long morning of picking, sorting, shucking, and selling corn to then try and outpace each other for who could eat the most ears of corn at lunch.
We’d laugh, create inside jokes within my family, and sit at the table long after everyone was finished eating.
In the winter I loved to bring friends home to my mom’s cooking – her homemade bread was always a favorite – and my parents would ask us questions, get to know my friends, and my brother and I would share our excitement about school events or worries about math homework.
Now I have my own family to whom to pass this tradition of mealtime around the table. But I’m going to be honest: it’s not been easy.
As a dietitian and a mom, I also know how important it is to have dinner as a family. Family mealtime is about so much more than food and nutrition – it’s also about the memories we make together.
It’s about the conversations with our teenager. It’s about teaching healthy eating habits to our toddler.
Family mealtime is about sharing life together.
How Eating at Home Improves your Nutrition
Eating home-cooked meals almost always provides better nutrition than what you can get at a restaurant. Studies have shown people who cook and eat at home eat fewer calories than those who eat out frequently.
At home, you can use vegetables from the local farmer’s market, limit the amount of salt you add to freshly cooked dishes, and choose healthy oils to roast your vegetables.
At a restaurant it’s also easy to overeat, where portion sizes are typically larger than what the average person needs and it might be hard to listen to your hunger cues with the distractions in a restaurant.
In terms of eating at home, the answer to “what to eat” also makes a difference; frozen meals and ultra-processed ingredients like chicken nuggets or frozen French fries don’t provide the same benefits as cooking from scratch.
But cooking at home doesn’t have to mean complex, gourmet meals; even easy, 30-minute recipes like this Lemon Pesto Penne with Broccoli & Bursted Cherry Tomatoes is a great place to start!
How Eating Meals Together Prevents (and Fixes!) Picky Eating
As much as tired parents might wish, children tend to do as we do rather than do as we say. This is as true with eating habits as with anything else.
Family dinner offers a great chance to model healthy eating and how to try new foods in a low-pressure environment.
A key to helping picky eaters like more foods is simply exposure: your child doesn’t even have to eat the food – simply seeing it on the table and watching YOU eat and enjoy the food will help them move through their picky phase and become an adventurous eater on the other side.
On the other hand, if meals are constantly served in the car or in front of the television, it can be difficult for them to gain the experience and exposure to become confident in trying new foods. Instead, try serving dinner at the table, turn off the TV, and engage your kiddos in conversation about their day.
How Family Dinnertime Grows your Relationship with your Children
It seems like my husband and I are constantly rushing to places with my stepson. To practice, to rehearsal, to games, to school, to friends’ houses. It’s so easy to get caught up in the “rushing” and miss out on the actual moments.
Family mealtime offers us a unique space where time slows down – even for just 15 minutes – where we have the chance to get to know each other as a family and as individuals.
My favorite question to ask our 13-year-old at dinner is about his “highs” and “lows” of the day. Even with just a short conversation, we learn about what’s going on in his classes at school, his frustrations with his sports team, and hear about what his friends are doing.
It takes effort to ask these questions and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to wait for his answer – and occasionally we suffer through a few eye rolls – but I wouldn’t trade these conversations at the dinner table for anything.
How to Make time for Family Meals Amidst a Busy Schedule
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of trying to schedule family meals, I have some good news for you: to enjoy these benefits, you don’t have to have dinner as a family every single day!
In fact, it might be better to start small: to pick one day per week when you know you’ll all be home together at the same time, and plan to sit down together on that one day.
My family’s day is Thursday. Every Thursday Aunt Jen comes over and we have a home-cooked meal together.
It’s not always perfect; sometimes dinner is at 5:00 PM so the teenager can go to an evening school event. Sometimes I feed the toddler early and then he has a small bit of the meal while the rest of us eat at 7:30 PM after baseball practice.
Sometimes we even have to reschedule family dinner for Sunday night because the week is just too crazy.
But every week, we have at least one meal together at the table as a family. And that’s enough. In fact, having this one meal has given us the framework to have other meals as a family. Sometimes good habits start with something really small, and then grow over time.
If in the new year, you would like to start having dinner as a family more often, you can make it happen!
Here’s the secret to success: when you have a million activities scheduled in your week, you HAVE to start with a plan. Use this free Meal Planning Template and the 3-step process that goes with it to get started.
Rather than trying to fit your family meals into a rigid meal plan, you need to start with YOUR schedule and find a rhythm that works for you. My easy 3-step meal planning process will show you how.
You can claim these benefits of dinner at the table for your family. You can get started right now! It’s okay if it takes time or if it’s a bit uncomfortable. Simply taking the first step is key.
May this new year offer you many opportunities to make memories around the table.
Happy family dinner,