It’s no secret the pandemic has shifted family schedules – many parents are working from home, some children are attending virtual school and participating in fewer evening-time extracurricular activities and sports. A silver lining of the pandemic for some are family meals. In fact, research demonstrates a plethora of health benefits associated with consuming meals as a family. Along with tight schedules, having a picky eater ranks high on the list of reasons family meals don’t happen. The good news is that role modeling a positive attitude about trying new foods and discussing the benefits at the table can encourage picky eaters to try new foods.
Academic performance. Children who dine with their families are more likely to achieve in school than those who don’t. Even preschoolers can increase their vocabulary, particularly with complex words, more than reading storybooks with their parents. A study at Columbia University found that teens who participated in family meals at least five evenings per week were twice as likely to earn A grades than those who did so twice or fewer times per week.
Overall health. Dining as a family is associated with lower rates of obesity and better diet quality. In fact, dining as a family is linked to higher consumption of chronic disease-preventing foods like fruits and vegetables. Researchers have also found that family meals lower the risk of depressive symptoms, eating disorders, substance abuse and early teenage pregnancy.
Variety of skills. Role modeling healthy eating isn’t the only way parents can demonstrate important life skills at the table. As conversations flow, children strengthen their social skills. A task as simple as passing dishes around the dinner table and using serving utensils can support gross and fine motor skill development. Furthermore, a child preparing their own plate can boost their self-esteem.
Every parent wants the best for their child, but sometimes finding the time to dine together can be difficult – even during a pandemic. Here are some tips to make family meals happen:
Limit distractions. There’s a time and place cell phones and tablets offer a good distraction. However, it is more difficult to connect with family with the television turned on. Aim to make the dinner table an electronics-free zone for everyone, even parents.
Find other opportunities to gather. Not everyone has the luxury to eat dinner as a family. However, breakfast, lunch or even snack time can double as a family affair.
Prepare. The pandemic has perhaps allowed for more time at home, but that doesn’t mean parents aren’t busy. Try meal prepping freezer-friendly meals, ingredients for a quick dinner or let the slow cooker do the work to allow for more family time.
If time is limited, remember that adding even one family meal session per week can help. Cooking can double as a family activity and increase children’s interest in healthy food.
Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan based in Detroit. A native of Enköping, Sweden, she moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where she later earned a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition with a minor in Business Administration and holds a Master of Science in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Tennessee. Passionate about the science of nutrition and behavior, Shanthi has experience working in clinical nutrition, public health and teaching in the university setting. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, working on art and spending time with family.
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