Overcoming the Barriers to Family Mealtime

fiese-300-32_smallBy Barbara H. Fiese, PhD, Professor and Director, Family Resiliency Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Do your mealtimes feel like a pressure cooker? Running around to grab last-minute ingredients, making sure that everyone is home on time, remembering to take frozen entrées out of the freezer the night before? For many families, dining at home has become just “one more thing” they feel like they have to do and would rather avoid. How did we get here?

For many people, dining in with their family is viewed as both a blessing and a curse. Focus groups of parents of young children and adolescents have identified common barriers to sharing meals at home. Dealing with picky eating, siblings fighting at the table, getting help from a partner, coming up with new meal plans, balancing work/life stress, and budgeting are a few of the typical comments made by families today. In today’s hectic and frenetic fast-paced world, how can families be encouraged to slow down and dine at home given these barriers?

First, it might help to take a reality check. Dining-in need not be an elaborate affair. Family meals typically last about 18-20 minutes. These are not long drawn-out events that require all the world’s problems be solved in one sitting. Rather, they are brief interludes for checking in, catching up, and conversing. Indeed, it is the opportunity to share the news of the day that parents find the most rewarding aspects of sharing meals (and the part that teens often find the most embarrassing).

Second, there are health benefits to sharing meals at home. Meals served at home tend to be lower in fat, contain more vegetables, and contain fewer calories per serving than those eaten away from home. In addition, families that share meals three or more times per week tend to have children who are of healthier weight, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and reduce the odds of being obese or developing eating disorders. Of course, we cannot say that sharing meals at home causes these positive health benefits, but the association remains strong across multiple studies.

Third, eating together provides an opportunity to instill traditions that can be carried onto the next generation. Although my son often rolled his eyes when asked to be home for dinner as a teenager, he soon came to look forward to sharing meals as a family ritual. He is now the cook in his family and is creating his own traditions.

The Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois has created a series of public service announcements to help families deal with some of the common mealtime barriers, such as picky eating, and to promote healthy mealtime practices, such as cooking together as a family. These videos are publicly available through the Mealtime Minutes initiative, http://familyresiliency.illinois.edu/MealtimeMinutes.htm. Each announcement includes the statement “Don’t do it just for them—do it for you too.” Celebrate Family & Consumer Sciences Day by “Dining In” on December 3rd and perhaps a new tradition will extend throughout the year as you find new ways to benefit from this healthy practice.



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