A Blog From Your Kaiser Permanente Physicians

Fun Family Dinners? Here’s How!

One night last week, as I was cooking dinner but feeling lazy after a long day of both mom-work and doctor-work, I got a craving. An unusual craving for me – I wanted to eat dinner with my feet up, while watching TV. I called out to my kids “Want to watch Castle while we eat?”

“No mom, let’s sit and talk instead.”

Well, I guess I’ve done something right as a parent! Castle waited while we ate and talked.

The evidence continues to pour in: Eating meals with your family is good for kids’ health.

  • Young children and teens who regularly eat the evening meal with their family are less likely to be overweight.
  • Teens who eat regularly with their family are less likely to have eating disorders, be cyberbullied, use alcohol and tobacco, or be depressed.
  • Eating as a family teaches kids healthier eating habits and better food choices.

What matters is not just the act of sitting with family. There is also a positive effect of having quality interactions and conversations together. Children who had positive communication during mealtimes have been shown to have less severe asthma symptoms and, consequently, an improved quality of life. Additional studies show that frequent family meals decrease the likelihood of adolescent alcohol and tobacco use. Teens’ positive experience at mealtimes was found to be connected with this decreased rate of substance use.

Looking at all of this evidence makes it very clear: We need to eat dinner with our kids for the sake of their health. We also need to find ways to make our dinnertime conversations meaningful, interesting, and thought-provoking. Sure, some research shows a benefit to simply sitting around the table together, but you might as well have fun while you sit there.

Meals together with your family can be magical. They can be full of conversation and fun, and are important times to reconnect with each other after a day apart. However, this kind of mealtime can feel hard to achieve sometimes! Too often worries about what the kids are eating make parents nag kids. Everyone may be tired and cranky, and that can lead to bickering rather than sharing.

Let’s see if we can help your meals become the valuable experience they should be.

First and probably hardest, hold back the worry about what your kids eat!

  • As a parent, your job is to offer healthy food choices. Your child’s job is to choose which foods, and how much, to eat.
  • Think of their nutrition as averaged over a month. If the choices are healthy, then eventually their diet will become well rounded. It’s more important to make your dinners relaxed and enjoyable.
  • If you’re worried about their weight, contact your doctor to ask if there is a reason to worry. If the doctor feels that your child’s weight is healthy, it may help to let go of your dinnertime concern.

Busy family schedules can get in the way of eating together as a family, but try to make togetherness a priority.

  • Schedule activities like sports around dinner when possible. That may mean talking with coaches to advocate for the importance of family mealtimes.
  • Consider eating at creative times: early – before soccer practice, or late – after practice.
  • If dinners won’t work, make time for a family breakfast!
  • Pull out that slow cooker and let it cook dinner while you focus on other things during the day. Freeze meals ahead of time.

Teach your children that meals are meant for sharing the day’s experiences.

  • Ask them about their days and share about yours as well.
  • Try the “two true, one false game,” if it’s hard to get started. Everyone takes turns telling two true experiences from their day and one false. Then, everyone else gets to guess which one is false. Without even noticing, they will tell you lots about their day.

Playing other games can be fun too.

  • “Kids love playing “Would you rather this or that?” For example, ask them, “Would you rather be rich but lonely or poor and surrounded by love?” You’ll learn about who your child is becoming and sneak in a discussion about values and morals.
  • “Goober goat” – a zany word association game that starts with one person saying the name of anything found on a farm. The next person says the first word that comes to mind and is asked to explain the connection without being criticized. These connections and explanations give you a fun view of your child’s mind and personality.

Tell them your stories. Talk about your life. Answer their questions. Problem solve together. All of this is most successful if you are animated and excited to be talking with them!

And finally, resist the urge to watch TV during dinner. It’s been shown that simply having the TV on in the background during dinner can reverse some of the healthy benefits of eating together!

The stories, games, and values that you share at dinner will last a lifetime and give your kids many warm memories. Bon appetit!

For more information about family dining, see these articles on My Doctor Online:

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