I am a board-certified pediatrician, wife, mother of four, and host of a podcast. I have been interested in nutrition and feeding practices for as long as I can remember. In my practice as a pediatrician, I was constantly bombarded with parent concerns about children’s eating habits. Commonly parents worried that their children were not eating enough, were eating too much, or would only eat from a very small list of not-so-healthy foods. It was then that I started to realize that although what we eat is important to our health, how we eat matters so much more.
Sitting with my family, sharing some pizza in the park this weekend, I couldn’t help but reflect on my recent podcast interview with Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals.
Since feeding the fam is kind of my jam, you can imagine I have long seen the value in sharing good food with my people. Miriam’s book, however, reminded me of just how important this “ritual” truly is. Family meals have been associated with a lower incidence of teenage drug and alcohol use, lower teen pregnancy rates, and decreased risk for both obesity and eating disorders. At the same time, they are also tied to getting better grades, better reading readiness in kindergarteners, and increased resilience in kids.
It seems that family meals help kids learn what constitutes a “reasonable” meal in terms of nutrition and portion size. But, overwhelmingly, the benefits of the family meal come from the almost ridiculously simple act of just sitting together, sharing the same food, and facing each other.
It seems almost too good to be true.
However, as I sat on a blanket in the park with the five people I love most in this world, it was as though I could see all these truths unfolding before my eyes. The food we ate (take-out pizza and canned carbonated beverages) was nutritionally questionable by many standards. But, we were hungry, and it was delicious. We enjoyed every glorious bit of it.
My husband, who is an excellent storyteller, talked to the kids about a mistake he had made that week and how that made him feel. The kids listened, intently, and I understood that this was the process in action. They were learning that DAD – the coolest guy ever— makes mistakes. That sometimes, DAD feels anxious and scared. Sometimes DAD feels guilt. DAD thinks about how he can do better next time. Yet, DAD is still here, being awesome.
These stories are the grains of sand that form the castle in which kids come to realize that they too will make mistakes, but they too will be ok. They, too, can persevere and actually thrive. It might look like chatting over pizza, but in fact, it is the recipe for building resilient children.
The kids themselves checked in, telling us their favorite parts about the first week back to school. They looped us into their lives. They updated us on the goings-on of first grade and reminded us of the curious dynamics of middle school.
And then they were gone … throwing footballs and playing on the swings. But not before I snapped a photo – on my phone and in my mind – to remind myself that this was my chance to “see everyone there, just as they are tonight and never will be again.”
The power of the family meal is real. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to BE. In fact, I suspect not-so-perfect works best.
If you are encountering families with feeding concerns, I strongly encourage you to ask them if sitting down together for meals is part of their regular routine. The more prescriptive “eat this, not that” or calorie counting model that has been traditionally used in medicine is clearly not working well. As we see continue to see increased obesity and disordered eating alongside decreased resilience in our children, a return to the daily “ritual” of the family meal may be the most beneficial first step for some of our struggling families. Encourage them to start small if necessary. If they are currently not eating together set the goal of one meal per week. If they are already doing it, suggest that they do so with more verve and intention. Educate yourself on the overwhelming benefits of the family meal for children and parents alike. Practice it in your own home so that you too may know the magic of this simple act. Family meals are a small change that is accessible and manageable for just about anyone— and maybe just what the doctor ordered.
Kristin Saxena is a pediatrician.
Image credit: Kristin Saxena