As your kids navigate adolescence, there seems to be a new thing to worry about every day: Whom are they hanging out with? Will there be drugs or alcohol at that party? What about their grades? Not to mention, how did the phone bill get that high?
A Simple Strategy for Family Sanity
Surprisingly, the best way to counter the myriad dangers life lays out for teens may be as simple as sitting down at the table with them on a regular basis. Multiple studies show that along with having better eating habits (both now and in the future), adolescents who dine with their clan five or more times a week are also at a lower risk of a host of emotional and social problems. These young people are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, smoke, engage in dangerous sexual behavior or have low grades than their counterparts who forage on their own. Some of the studies have also found that youths, especially girls, who take part in family meals are also at a lowered risk of developing eating disorders. Of course we do not think it is just eating together; it likely is related to positive family relationships and the opportunity to communicate with one another.
Wise Up to Table Talk
The benefits of family meals aren’t limited to teens; younger kids gain in surprising ways too. Busy schedules might lead you to feed preschool and grade school kids early in the evening and then grab a bowl of cereal or a microwaved entree for yourself after they go to bed. But if you regularly do that, you’re depriving your kids of one of the biggest brain-boosters around: Family talk time. Studies have shown that table talk is a critical factor in developing childhood vocabulary (even more so than storybook reading); in fact, one found that more detailed discussions at the table, and just more time at the table, were associated with stronger vocabularies in young children.
Think that your kids — especially teens — won’t come down to the table no matter what you do? The fact is, in research conducted by the University of Minnesota, an overwhelming percent of teens — almost 80 percent — report that they enjoy eating together as a family. “Quite frequently,” says Mira Ilic, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, “parents are disconnected from their kids’ lives. Family meals let you be part of your kids’ day, and foster closeness.” Start eating together and your kids are likely to welcome the event, and the chance to spend more time together.
But, as the research notes, creating a comfortable atmosphere at the table is critical. (In the Minnesota research, kids who claim not to enjoy family meals cite family conflict and indifference among their reasons.) Instead of viewing your meals as one more to-do, construct them as what Ilic calls a sacred hour — something special to share together. “Meals are supposed to be enjoyable,” says Elyse Falk, RD, MS, CDN, a dietitian who counsels families and teens in Westchester County, New York. “They’re part of life. When else does a family stop, get together and talk?” Here are some ways to start to build a healthy environment that will keep everyone coming back to the table.
· Make meals an event. Table time is a chance to model social behavior as well as nutritional habits, note both Falk and Ilic. Sit down at the table (as opposed to, oh, the kids at the counter and you standing in the corner, watching the news as you mindless munch), chew and enjoy your food, and take time between bites. Keep in mind that that meals are a time for socializing as well as refueling, says Ilic. Look up, put your fork down between bites, slow down, and savor both your meal and the conversation that goes with it.
· Create a calming atmosphere. “Dining’s about nurturing your body in a nice, peaceful place,” says Falk. Granted, given today’s hectic family schedules, calm may not settle in naturally. Try a little mood setting: If you’re having dinner, turn on music or light candles, suggests Falk; in the morning, put on an upbeat CD that you can all enjoy to start the day with a happy groove.
· Ban the distractions. The number one offense: electronic devices. “If everyone is texting or talking on the phones,” says Falk, “you end up with mindless eating. You’re not listening to your body.” So corral the phones (that goes for parents’ too), remove the earbuds, stow the DS and focus on engaging with the people at the table. Needless to say, the TV should be off as well.
· Avoid stressful issues. While creating open communication at the table is good, the family meal is probably not the time to start in on your teenage daughter’s new nose ring or your third grade son’s struggles with multiplication. Although those subjects need to be addressed, the table’s not the place. A child or teen who feels that every meal is a confrontation is going to start avoiding them. Instead, choose topics that will get them involved in conversation — as simple as “What movie do you want to see this weekend?” or “I read something interesting today — I’d like to know what you think about it.”