Among the struggles all parents face — saving for college, paying for the orthodontist, negotiating bedtimes and simply putting up with the attitude — is getting their kids to eat healthfully. Combine your busy schedule and a vast array of junk food marketed specifically to them, and its no wonder that you feel as though it’s easier to monitor their Internet usage than their food choices.
The number one way to get your children to make smart food choices? Eat with them, at least once a day. Several studies have found that kids who dine with their families frequently — at least five times a week — eat more healthfully overall, with various research pointing to higher consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium-rich foods; lower levels of less nutritious foods, and even fewer soft drinks.
If you think these results are just because those youngsters have a parent breathing down their neck about finishing their vegetables, consider this: The benefits of eating together, other research says, carry into adulthood. As teens mature into young adults, those who ate regularly with their families in middle and high school continue to consume more nutritious diets when they venture into the wide world on their own.
What makes a meal a “family meal”? It’s more than everyone chowing down in the car together; the research emphasizes that the benefits are reaped from making mealtime a priority, providing rules and structure to the event, and maintaining an enjoyable atmosphere.
Here are five tips for making family mealtime possible and positive:
1. Plan your meals. Given the intricacies of coordinating social, school and work schedules, creating a meal plan for the week and identifying the times you can all sit down together is an absolute requirement for getting together. Dinners together don’t have to be elaborate — a quick shrimp-and-vegetable stir-fry or grilled chicken over salad will fuel your family in a healthy way and work with your hectic schedules. “Create a weekly or even monthly schedule,” advises Mira Ilic, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “Think about what you can prepare ahead of time and freeze.”
2. Think beyond dinner. “Eating together doesn’t necessarily mean dinner,” notes Elyse Falk, RD, MS, CDN, a dietitian who counsels families and teens in Westchester County, New York. “That can put too much pressure on everyone.” She suggests trying to start the day by all eating breakfast together. The bonus: You’ll help instill the habit of eating the most important meal of the day. In a review of studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found that kids who regularly ate breakfast not only had better overall nutrition but also were less likely to be overweight. Additionally, the evidence suggests that breakfast-eaters had improved memory, test scores and school attendance!
3. Make one meal. Serve the same food to kids and adults. One of the reasons to eat together, says Falk, is modeling behavior for kids to adopt. “It’s really important for kids to see their parents eating the same thing as they are. They need to see you having the green vegetable, the red vegetable, so they’ll try it themselves.” If you’re working on making healthful changes in your own diet, this is a chance to extend that to the whole family, notes Ilic — if you’re trying to add in more whole grains, for instance, introduce pasta made with whole grain for the entire family.
4. Pre-plate everyone’s dish. A family meal doesn’t have to mean eating family style, with everyone helping themselves out of a common serving dish. As Ilic notes, proper portion control is one of the behaviors you can pass on to your kids by engaging in it yourself. Serving food on individual plates makes this easier and helps everyone get a better feel of how much is enough. You’ll also make sure that the vegetables don’t get passed up!
5. Turn off the TV. Research from the University of Minnesota reveals that kids who ate meals with their families while watching television had less nutritious diets than those who dined without the boob tube on. TV-watching boys ate fewer vegetables and grains and drank more soft drinks, and girls ate fewer dark vegetables and more fried food.