No pediatrician can answer the question: “What’s the most important thing I can do to keep my child healthy?” without listing three of four things. I’m no different, but right now family dinners are at the top of my list. You could argue that immunizations, car seats, bike helmets, 9-1-1, sleep, or good hand washing are just as important, and I won’t disagree. But it’s hard to overlook the overwhelming research on the positive effects of family dinners on children’s diet, social development, and sense of connection with their parents and siblings.
Family dinner means sitting down to eat with an adult, without any distracting screens, on most days of the week. It also means everyone eating the same meal. With our busy lives and overscheduled kids, this can be difficult but not impossible. Even if you can’t do it every night, it’s worth rearranging the schedule so that some nights everyone can eat together.
Benefits of the family dinner vary depending on the ages of your children. For the toddler and preschooler, the family dinner will be short. Most toddlers will sit at the table for just a few minutes before getting distracted and wanting to run off and play. The importance of the family dinner for them is modeling good eating habits and improving their diet. Children who are fed a separate meal will eat from the “Kids Menu” more often. This usually means hot dogs, pasta, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and other foods that they are quick and easy to prepare, and don’t challenge their taste buds too much.
When you serve a meal for the entire family, the toddler is forced to watch you eat all sorts of different foods. (Assuming that your diet is better than the “Kids Menu” choices.) Colorful things – green, yellow, red, and sometimes even blue. Lots of textures and tastes, and more variety than they would choose on their own. This isn’t going to be immediately popular unless you have an adventurous eater. But over time, even the pickiest eaters will try new and different foods – after watching you eat them 100 or 1000 times.
For the school-aged child, family dinners are a time to share and talk. This is where they practice telling you about school, their friends, the picture they drew that day, the insect they found in the backyard or what books they are reading. This is a time to practice manners – I can guarantee that you will have at least one conversation about the appropriateness of potty talk at the dinner table, and if say it enough times, they may start to use a napkin to wipe their mouth instead of a sleeve. Many families have a regular way of sharing the day’s experiences: “What was the best and worst thing that happened today?,” “Highs and Lows,” or “What are you thankful for?”
The family dinner provides opportunities for assigning chores and responsibilities. Kids should learn that being part of the family means sharing the work as well. Setting the table, pouring drinks, clearing plates and washing and putting away the dishes are all things they can do to help. If your child is interested, they can even take part in planning meals, shopping and cooking. For the very picky eater, helping cook can get them interested in foods they would otherwise never think about eating.
As kids get older, family dinners are even more important. Teens are going through a developmental stage where they are separating from their parents and joining a peer group. Keeping tabs on them while they make this transition is important, and family meals give you a regular time to sit and talk about what’s up. If family dinners are a regular occurrence, you’ll notice when something is bothering your teen.
Take the time to sit down and eat with your kids, even if it’s not convenient. It doesn’t have to be every night, and it doesn’t have to be both parents. Eating healthy meals with your kids is a win for everyone.
Nelson Branco is a pediatrician who blogs at Survivor: Pediatrics.
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