Building relationships and better nutrition around the dinner table
Some of our most powerful memories are ones involving food. Baking cookies with mom or grandma, negotiating trades over lunchboxes in the cafeteria, special occasions at a favorite restaurant, popcorn at the movies, and of course, the holiday table each Thanksgiving. Smells of familiar foods evoke memories, the sight of certain dishes remind us of conversations and laughs we shared. The clinking of forks on dishes, the family announcements and discussions, the appetites quieted as the foods on the plates disappear. Out of a scene from a classic Norman Rockwell painting of that happy family gathered around the dining table, recent research suggests that family meals are actually a powerful secret weapon to our overall health and well-being.
While the fast-paced lives and high-tech kitchens of the 2000s look dramatically different—and much improved in many ways—from the vinyl chairs, Formica tabletops and hand mixers of the 1950s, the family dining tradition that went along with that era is one aspect we may just want to recapture from the past. Dining together as friends and family is an important part of healthy living and while many of us seem to have less-and-less time to spare, researchers are showing more-and-more why we need to take charge and regain the practice of dining together to safeguard the health of each member of our family.
Family meals shared together provide a time for good nutrition and a time for good connections, too. Sitting down slows us down and when we spend time dining our minds and bodies thank us.
Consider some rather striking research findings:
Good news—we are starting to eat home more again.
Whether it’s for the sake of good health or simply for convenience, Americans are eating at home much more today than in recent years. That is good news, and a good opportunity, too, since not only do over 90% feel they eat healthier when they dine at home, but a home-cooked meal is much friendlier to the budget ringing in at only one-third as much as dining-out.
But with the good news comes challenges, too. In a culture of speed-feeding, answering ‘what’s for dinner’ can seem daunting especially since according to recent survey data a third of us don’t know what we’re going to eat within 2 hours of dinnertime. Fast food and take-out seem likely options when we need food on the table fast, unless you have some strategies lined up and the motivation to enjoy the benefits to your mind, body and family health by making family mealtime a must.
What you can do—some strategies for making family dinner a renewed priority.
With the increasing demands on our time, finding time for family meals can certainly seem challenging. And while it may seem easier said—or read—than done at first blush, making family meals a regular part of your life can be a small-steps process that with time will bring big rewards to the your family’s health.
Plan a menu:
It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Simply plan and write down two or three meals—preferably ones that are easy and nutritious that you already know—for the coming week. Or for recipe inspirations, search the recipe database here at Healing Lifestyles & Spas. Keep meals simple: an easy grilled or baked fish, a small salad, vegetable and brown rice one night and a pasta dish with chicken, sliced cherry tomatoes, parmesan and olive oil along with a salad and cut fruit for dessert another.
Schedule family meals
as you would a very important appointment. Start with 2 and then aim for a minimum of 3 meals together each week. And if adjustments have to be made in the schedule to make this happen, work toward making those changes over the course of a few weeks. Over time, work toward 4 or more meals together as a family weekly, but take it one step, one meal, and one week at a time.
Involve children, partners/spouses and friends in the planning, prep, cooking, setting and clean-up:
Family members can participate as they are able by skill and available time in the process. This is an important life-skill to practice and it’s another opportunity to spend valuable time together.
Set the table:
Setting the table makes it an occasion and makes dining a more mindful event. You or a family member can set the table in the afternoon or evening—or try setting the table in the morning as a reminder of the important activity you’ll share together later that day.
Start new traditions.
If you’re looking for inspiration or if you’re looking for buy-in from the rest of the gang in making a shift toward more family meals, try ‘breakfast for dinner’ night (egg sandwiches or blueberry pancakes), an indoor picnic on a blanket in the middle of the kitchen or family room, or an ethnic cuisine night featuring a new (simple) recipe from a different culture.
During the meal: Dining together can take some practice—and establishing a few rules to encourage mindful eating and meaningful interactions.
Avoid Distractions:Focus on mealtime eating and togetherness. Create a media-free zone: turn off the TV, computers, radio, phones (both cells and landlines).
Amazingly, in our fast-paced world today and one of sound bites, texting abbreviations, and ‘yes-no-fine’ responses from kids, some researchers are worried that our ability to communicate well has decreased. The dinner table is fertile ground for practicing the art of conversation and deepening our relationships through communicating together.
With family and friends, try sharing around the table:
Once you’re at the table, dining and sharing together, you have the perfect ingredients to practice slowing down, chewing and savoring your food. Mindful eating can help make meals more enjoyable and may even decrease heartburn, gassiness and bloating often experienced when ‘eating on go.’
Ultimately, family meals should be fun. Not every meal will be a bowl of laughs, but with the priority and practice of bringing the family to the table and carving out time to eat and be together, we can all enjoy better health and nourishment for our bodies, minds and our whole family.
is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian and freelance writer in San Diego. She also heads the nutrition program at the renowned Golden Door and is Co-owner of Bazilian’s Health Clinic with her husband and business partner, Dr. Jason Bazilian. Dr. Wendy is author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale).