General Parenting Issues — 04 July 2009
Meals with your children is an important part of good parenting

Being a parent is one of the most challenging jobs of all. It comes with no operating manual, no job description, no guidelines for smooth operation, and certainly with no set techniques for repair when the outcome does not match the intent. Each set of parents and each child have their own unique, relationship patterns of interactions. Yet, volumes have been written to help parents do the best job in enhancing their children’s healthy development.

Experts in child development, educators, psychologists, family dynamics professionals and other academicians provide parents with current findings to help them succeed in offering their children the best opportunity for their physical, emotional, psychological and intellectual maturation.

Recent research findings confirm that eating with children has long-term nutritional and psychological benefits for youngsters.

Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School reported his findings in “The Archives of Family Medicine, 2000”. He summarized the nutritional benefits to children, ”Eating family dinner was associated with healthful dietary intake patterns”.

The largest federally funded study of teens by the Council of Economic Advisers “Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: An Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement”, published in 2004, found that adolescents who ate with their parents five or more times a week exhibited greater academic performance, were psychologically healthier, had lower rates of drug and alcohol use, sexual behavior and suicide risk than did those who ate less frequently with their parents.

Though family meals are of great value, many parents struggle to make dining together a regular habit. Between parents’ work schedules, adolescents’ after school activities, lessons and sport events, coordinating dinnertime for everyone does seem daunting. Some parents are too fatigued to cook and resort to take out foods that are usually less healthy and are eaten on the run.

Sibling bickering, poor eating habits, arguments about food preference and teenagers attitudes are additional deterrents for parental enforcement of family dining. Some adolescents resist the formality and rigidity of a scheduled dining ritual. Many good parents may also be unaware of the essential benefits family meals provide for their youngsters.

Though all these reasons may be valid, the benefits to adolescents of eating with their parents far outweigh the inconveniences involved. As resistant as teenagers may be to family interaction, they do benefit greatly from the attention they receive, the conversational skills they learn, the relationship model they observe between their parents and the closeness and support of the family unit that serves as a strong emotional base for these maturing youngsters.

As good parents you seek to help your youngster have the greatest educational and health benefits available. It is, therefore, part of your good parenting job to establish the ritual of sharing as many meals together as possible.

• Accept that planning for family meals is one of the important responsibilities of a good parent. It teaches children about healthy nutrition, provides them with closeness to parents, lowers the risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse and increases your teenager’s confidence and emotional security.
• Schedule at least five meals a week together. If your children are small, create this routine early, which will be easier to sustain as they grow older.
• Affirm your teenager’s resistance to family dining as you cajole him/her to participate. “I understand your need to text your friend right now – you can do so after dinner. We really want you at the table with us.”
• Make family meals a treat. Speak enthusiastically about your pleasure at being together with each other every day and structure the conversation to be comfortable and free.
• Remember that as a good parent you are extending yourself to create family meals for the bonding experience and for your child’s lifelong benefit and wellbeing.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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