Making the Most of Dinnertime: Start When Children are Young

February 12th, 2013 posted by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

By Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Picture Norman Rockwell, the classic American painter, alive today and commissioned to paint a scene of our generation’s family dinner. Would it be of paper-wrapped peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches strewn on an SUV’s backseat? Or of your young son or daughter trying to swallow a sandwich whole while running on to the soccer field for practice? Would it be of you standing in front of the freezer choosing from an overwhelming assortment of TV dinners? Or would it be of your husband, tired from a long day at work, eating leftovers or take-out alone under a single kitchen light? I think the decreasing reliance on the family dinner ritual would sadden Mr. Rockwell. Once a sure way for family to connect and bond, the “family dinner” is quickly becoming nonexistent. Bill Doherty, University of Minnesota professor and founder of Putting Family First, notes “the number of families eating together has declined by one-third since the mid 70’s.” It seems the privilege of sharing a daily home-cooked meal has become reserved for a narrow few-perhaps only those who turn off their telephones and televisions and schedule nothing for the early evening hours. The importance of gathering around the dinner table for a home-cooked meal (or even Chinese take-out on busier nights) is often underestimated. Its long-term benefits are only recently understood and could be the most powerful drug prevention program as your children become teens.

Start the Dinner Habit Early

// The best way to make family dinners a cherished tradition is to start them early in your children’s lives. A sit-down meal brings much more to the table than just Mom’s pot roast. It brings an opportunity to encourage your children to make healthy choices from childhood into adulthood. On the whole (and in the long-run), everyone’s diet is healthier with a home cooked meal. When you cook the meal yourself, you are in control of its nutritional value. You know the importance Vitamin E and how to make broccoli taste delicious instead of like “The Nightmare.” Atkins experts believe the family dinner is one of the most essential factors associated with children having a nutritious diet. They learn to eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, and vitamin-rich foods. You’ll be giving your children the knowledge they need to make healthy eating choices a habit outside the home and in the future. Not only is the dinner table a chance to encourage your children to make healthy nutritional choices, but also an opportunity to help them make healthy lifestyle choices as well. The dinner table is a remarkable forum for family talk and for discovering what is going on in your children’s lives. Having a block of time set aside to talk to children, allows you to stay updated on their school and social lives. Children’s vocabularies are broadened from exposure to your grown-up conversation with your spouse. And when you include them in the conversation, children feel their parents are interested in them and value what they have to say.

Simple Ways to Make Family Dinners Fun

Without question, families are finding it increasingly difficult to be together at dinnertime. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be. According to a USA Today poll, 70 percent of working men are willing to give up some pay for time with their families. Making your family unit more cohesive doesn’t have to be out-of-reach. All it takes is a little effort. As dinners become a routine part of your family culture, young children begin to feel important because they are contributing and/or being treated as the special people they are. Once dinner becomes a priority on your whole family’s schedule, here are some tested ways to make family dinner a tradition everyone benefits from and enjoys:

Double Desserts

Once a month or whenever you happen to have enough, shock your children by announcing double dessert night.

Assistant to the Chef

You’ll see more of your child if you enlist his services to fill the breadbasket, carry dishes to the table, fill the salt and pepper shakers, or wash the lettuce.

Candlelight Dinner

Once every few weeks, put fresh flowers on the table, light dinner candles, and take a moment to express gratitude that you are a family.

Breakfast for Dinner

Unusual enough to be remembered and especially easy when time is short. Serve a dinner of waffles, pancakes, French toast or another typical morning meal such as bacon and eggs.

Tuesday-Ben’s Night

Assign each member of the family a night that he is “responsible” for dinner. Everybody helps with the preparation. Even a four-year-old can take hot dogs out of the package, tear lettuce leaves for a salad or pour chocolate sauce on ice cream.

What’s Cooking?

Cook something with your child at least once a month- cookies, muffins, cupcakes. Simple recipes and prepared mixes are good choices for children who usually can’t wait to eat whatever they make. Note: Invest in a children’s cookbook to make cooking more interesting for your young chef.

Pizza Party

Buy prepared pizza curst (Italian pizza bread) from your supermarket or only the dough from your local pizza parlor. The children punch down the dough and pull it into shape. Have them spread their favorite toppings.

May I Take Your Order?

Transform the kitchen into a restaurant and assign everyone different roles-owner, chef, waiter, customers, cashier-and the kitchen becomes a learning environment.

Family and Friends

Allow your child to invite a friend to dinner occasionally. This lets you form a better relationship with your children’s friends, and your child might be more comfortable discussing issues that arise outside the home if he has someone his own age present. This tradition can, and should, be continued throughout adolescence when children are more likely to turn to friends than family members for support.

Best and Worst

Go around the table and have each person tell you what was the best and worst part of his day. Parents respond, too… “Old fashioned” dinners along with “old fashioned” talk go a long way in connecting with children and bonding the family. Prolong the experience with the promise of a game of Chutes & Ladders, more work on a puzzle, or turn on the radio and dance in the kitchen for a few minutes before or after everyone helps with clean up.

Without Family Dinners: The Dangers Down-the-Line

By making family dinner a tradition in your household, you decrease the likeliness of problems during the teen years. Recent studies out of the University of Minnesota and The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicate that teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their families have healthier body images, higher grades and are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. “Since society has so much influence on adolescents because of the high prevalence of obesity and the pressure to be skinny, many girls are turning to unhealthy ways of controlling their weight,” reports Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., professor of epidemiology and primary author of the University of Minnesota study. “Prioritizing structured family meals that take place in a positive environment can protect girls from destructive eating habits that can lead to anorexia and bulimia.” Family dinners can also result in smarter life choices. The National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found that teens who have dinner with their families five or more times per week are almost twice as likely to receive A’s in school. Out of the classroom, these same teens are nearly fifty percent more likely to stay away from alcohol and about thirty percent more likely to refrain from cigarette smoking. “The survey finds that the more often children have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs,” said Joseph A. Califano, chairman and president of CASA. While it may seem difficult, if not impossible, to rearrange the family’s schedule to fit in a solid hour for dinner every night, it is a step that is crucial to the healthy development of your child. The ritual of dinner together can easily become a fond memory of growing up for your children. So, spread the word that dinner is not optional in your house, and bring the family together on as many nights as you possibly can.

Susan Newman, Ph.D. (1 Posts)

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Cindy Rowe is the owner/editor of Crazylou Creations blog. On the blog, you will find a little bit of crazy, and a whole lot of fun! As a FT working mother, she still finds time to create crafts, play around in the kitchen, plan parties and exercise. You'll find all of this and more on her blog!

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