I work from a home office and, for the first time in 10 years, I am lunching alone on weekdays. Both of our kids are now in schools that are far enough away that they won’t be coming home for lunch anymore.
I’ll miss their company. I am a big advocate of eating together as often as possible; the benefits of family meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner all count) are so convincing. A study published in the journal Pediatrics and a survey by The Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that children and teens who eat with their families at least three times a week are more likely to eat vegetables and fruit, and less likely to eat fast food, candy and pop. Their diets are higher in fibre, calcium, folate, iron, B vitamins and vitamin C compared to kids who do not regularly eat with their families.
And the benefits of eating together go beyond nutrition. Adolescents who enjoy family meals at least five times a week do better at school and are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. Eating together can also cut the chances of a teen being overweight or having an eating disorder.
The benefits are clear; but why do family meals have such a positive impact? The answer could simply be talking. A study published in last year’s Journal of Adolescence suggests that communication between teens and parents is one of the most important aspects of the family meal. Gathering around the table gives kids and parents the opportunity to talk, express their feelings and support each other. Sure, there may be some arguments or frustrating times with picky eaters, but overall, the family meal offers a chance to set boundaries and expectations. According to the researchers, this helps to boost a teen’s emotional well-being and positive outlook, and to strengthen family bonds.
Younger kids can benefit from the dialogue at mealtimes, too. A study out of Harvard University looked specifically at the interaction between moms and kids. The researchers found that conversations between moms and their preschoolers at mealtimes correlated with better vocabulary by the time the child was five years old.
So cook and eat with your kids whenever you can’and use that precious time to laugh, learn and stay connected. Tell them stories about your childhood, share family recipes, and talk about the different ingredients in the meal. Here are a few conversation starters to get your kids talking:
Ask about their day.
Talk about what they did at school. For example, ask: ‘What’s the best and worst thing that happened today?’ ‘What happened that made you laugh?’
Spark their imagination.
Ask questions that let them dream. For example: ‘If you could take just one food with you on a deserted island, what would it be?’ ‘If you had three wishes, what would you wish for and why?’
Start a friendly debate.
Ask a question and then ask each person for their thoughts. For example: ‘Should there be Wi-Fi in national parks?’ ‘Are books better than TV?’
Share a smile.
Ask each person to tell a joke. Or say: ‘Do an impression of a person or your favourite animal.’
Rate the recipe.
Ask them to pretend they’re on a reality TV cooking show. Ask: ‘On a scale from one to 10, how do you rate the meal you just had?’
As for my lonely lunchtimes, I just found a fabulous noon-hour yoga class’and it’s next to a market where I’ll pick up cheese and peppers to make fajitas tonight. I’ll share the news about my new lunchtime routine with my family over dinner!
Sue Mah, a registered dietitian and mother of two, is a Best Health contributor. Follow her on Twitter @SueMahRD.