Importance of Family Meals
Sitting down each day for purposeful family meals is a tradition that seems to be fading away as we get more and more into this digital era. Take a second and think about it! How often does your family sit down and eat together? Is it once a day or once a week, or maybe you cant really remember the last time. And let me just say that eating in the same room, or eating in the car together does not count! I am not pointing any fingers here at all because in our house we are just as guilty of sitting our son down to eat his dinner and then eating after he goes to bed or whenever we can fit it in. As a society, the frequency of family meals has continued to decline over time. Additionally, it feels as though even if we do sit down together to nourish our bodies we are either; 1. In a hurry and scarf the meal down as fast as we can, or 2. Distracted by electronics at the dinner table. It doesn’t come as a surprise that 4 out of 10 parents report various levels of phone usage during mealtimes, which in turn has shown to lower positive feeding practices such as taking our time, meaningful communication, as well as frequency of meals.
In the fast paced state of our current world, one thing that we have really lost sight of is the importance of intentional family meals, which thankfully has been very well researched in the past. The effect that regular family meals has on both the mental and physical health of our children is an exciting reason to start to really get back to incorporating them into our daily routines. In terms of nutritional health; children who eat dinner with their families most days of the week have been shown to have significantly higher intake of protein, fiber, calcium, iron, folate and essential vitamins. Increased family meal frequency is also associated with more intake of nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables and less intake of fried foods and sodas. Did you know that digestion literally starts in the brain? Slowing down and having a sit down intentional meal is switching our bodies from a sympathetic (fight or flight) response to a parasympathetic (rest & digest) response. This is like a switch for our bodies and is necessary for us to actually break down and utilize the food we are eating. Sounds like a simple way to support overall health and digestion right?
The psychosocial benefits of family mealtimes are vast as well. The ability to connect as a family in real conversations that lead to learning, laughter, and teaching of social skills & life lessons are abundant at the kitchen table. Both grade school children and adolescents have reported the social aspect with their families as being an important quality of this time together. This social interaction has even been linked to improved cognitive development and academic achievement. It leads to many conversations that promote ‘explanatory talk’ in which kids can ask questions and discuss topics with parents on a deeper level, therefore widening their perspectives on the world around them. Additionally, these connections and deep conversations have been correlated with a decrease in risk taking behaviors in older children and adolescents (think hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing drugs or alcohol, or experimenting sexually) .
As a parent of a 2 year old, I am realizing just how critical our daily and weekly routines really are. It can be really hard to not serve him his meal first and then eat later or after he goes to bed like I said earlier we have gotten in the habit of doing. It can be super tempting to turn on the tv while he eats or while I am preparing his meal. I am not even trying to pretend that we do a great job at this, but it is something that I am definitely aware of and it is my goal to work on it. I’m not shooting for perfection here by any means. Our goal should always be to just take that one step or start small and then it will continue to grow and become more of a habit.
The cool thing is that this not only affects him, but the generations to follow. The idea that if our son is raised on the premise that frequent family mealtimes are non-negotiable, then he likely will instill this same belief into his children and then their children after that. It is exciting to think of the generations of positive health influences that could come by something as simple as frequently eating together as a family. When we eliminate the distractions and hurry that we tend to bring with us to the dinner table, we are open to nourishing our bodies while having good conversations that will cause ripple effects both in and out of the home.
So how do we get started? Maybe you can’t remember the last time you ate together, get something set on the calendar in the next week. Start with once every two weeks then increase from there. Maybe you are already doing it once per week, then increase to two to three times. Or maybe you realize that you are sitting down together, but you are always distracted by electronics! Make mealtimes a no distraction zone and model this behavior for them. Keep in mind that we are going to have times where this is just tougher than others. Maybe we are in a season where we've got a lot of sports or after school activities. Maybe you are in a season where work is busy. Personally, our family is in a season of slight chaos, but there is an end in sight and that will be when we really make this a priority for our family. That is okay to have these seasons, so don’t beat yourself up over it! But keep in mind that there is always going to be “something” that is going on that can interfere with family meals. And these seasons should be just that “temporary and with an ending”. It may just be one of those things as a family that you make as your goal to prioritize and just be non-negotiable and I promise you are going to see the benefits in so many ways. Let’s make a pact together, today, to figure out when we can realistically make this a priority for our families!
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