Sometimes it feels like an absolute miracle when we actually sit down with our families to share food. Yep, eating. All at one time. In the same room. Without the TV. But it’s really, really good for us and our children. There are lots of studies that support what we know intuitively. One national study out of Tufts University found that more than 80% of parents consider eating dinner with their children very important, but less than 50% eat together regularly. Other studies have found a correlation between children who eat with their families on a regular basis and these cool things: a higher GPA; fewer behavioral & eating problems; less use of alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs; and higher self-esteem. Wow! So, here are some tips, guidelines, and ways of thinking about the practical, nourishing, mystical, loving ritual of sharing food.
Do’s and Don’ts for Quality Meal Time
Avoid conflict: OK, this may seem like a no-brainer, but really, how often do we sit down to a meal together and end up “getting into it.” One of the kids tells a story or says something that just knocks our socks off, and not in a good way, either. We just have to comment. I mean, we literally HAVE TO comment. We are worked up and we react. Some of you who know me know one of my favorite mantras: Respond, don’t react. It’s an especially good mantra to keep in mind at meal time. Instead of reacting, just breathe. Buy yourself some time. Try to savor your dinner. Role model this for your children.
Especially avoid conflict about food: Your daughter has decided to diet (even though you know there’s no need). Your daughter (or your son) has decided that having a second piece of cake for dessert is a really grand idea. With ice cream. Lots of it. But, mealtime should not be a battleground about food choices. You know that tense, tight stomach we sometimes get during arguments? Or the pressure in our chest that makes it hard to breathe? That’s our nervous system getting all worked up–and getting in the way of healthy, comfortable digestion AND really messing up the possibility of finding pleasure in this soulful activity called eating.
Don’t moralize about food: “Good” food? “Bad” food? Yep, most folks have a list. Even very young children have a list (and you thought they never listened!). It may not stop them from eating the “bad” food; in fact, it may make the forbidden fruit even more tantalizing. Jacque Mular, MS, Clinical Dietitian here in Pasadena (email@example.com), suggests a shift in language and attitude. Rather than “good” and “bad,” she says “I like to use the words ‘vital’ and ‘play’. Most of our diets are based around vital foods–those foods that provide us with life, energy and sustenance. Play foods are essential too–it’s normal and natural for us to celebrate by having birthday cake or pizza. The goal is to strike a balance between vital and play foods. Our job is to provide the food and let kids explore; find their own voice and balance.”
So then what can we do at mealtime?
Mindful eating: “Be present.” It may sound like a cliche, but “being present” in our relationship with food is a radical act bursting with possibilities. The Center for Mindful Eating (tcme.org) says mindful eating includes
- learning to make choices in beginning or ending a meal based on awareness of hunger and satiety cues;
- learning to identify personal triggers for mindless eating, such as emotions, social pressures, or certain foods;
- valuing quality over quantity of what you’re eating;
- appreciating the sensual, as well as the nourishing, capacity of food;
- feeling deep gratitude that may come from appreciating and experiencing food.
- You and the kids can really have some fun with this, exploring the colors, textures, subtle flavors and fragrances of your shared feast.
Honor Children’s Unique Body Cues & Preferences: Jacque Mular, MS, points out that “nutrition is a very personal and self directed piece of the soul.” We really want our kids to learn to listen to the “very rich and complex messages their bodies are sending at any given moment.” But my child will only eat mac and cheese, you say. “Kids eat in food jags and the best thing parents can do is let their children’s bodies make up for the difference (they always do!).”
Air Time for All: Meal time is a great chance for each person to check in and to hear from the rest of the tribe. It’s amazing the topics kids will come up with! Remember, if they’re talking, it’s good. When I was growing up, my grandmother joined us for many meals. She made a point of always bringing some interesting tidbit to the table, especially good jokes she’d heard or read. My teenaged brothers and I would sigh and roll our eyes but then we’d laugh. And hey, it was memorable enough that I’m mentioning it now.
Getting food on the table: Here are some quick tips.
- Involve the kids in food shopping and preparation, suggests Jacque Mular, MS.
- Get help! Check out companies like Dream Dinners (DreamDinners.com). They provide a great service in helping you prepare affordable healthful family meals with ease.
- Grow something. Even a box of herbs growing in the window sill or on the porch provides a life-affirming & healthful ritual.
- Explore some online recipe sites. Jacque Mular, MS suggests the ADA websiteEatRight.org and MyPyramid.gov.
- Take a look at these books: Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: Orchestrating and Enjoying the Family Meal, or Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Also see The American Dietetic Association Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids: How Your Children Can Eat Smart from Five to Twelve.
Special considerations: There are all kinds of additional challenges to navigate if your child has food allergies or special health needs; is a vegetarian and you’re not–or visa versa; or has an eating disorder. Check out our website for additional resources to help with these considerations.
It’s really important to work closely with your daughter’s health care providers, therapists and dietitians to determine the very best plan for your daughter and your role. That said, here some adjunctive resources that both Jacque and I have found helpful for some families:
For vegetarians, the The Moosewood Cookbook is a classic. The ADA site has some good info on vegetarian options. Cris Haltom, Ph.D, offers great tips to parents on what to do if they suspect an eating disorder; there’s a free e-zine that parents can subscribe to at EDSurvivalGuide.com. Carolyn Costin’s books, Your Dieting Daughter, 100 Questions & Answers About Eating Disorders, and The Eating Disorders Sourcebook are great. Bulimia.com is a comprehensive book resource for parents and professionals! Of course, Intuitive Eating is an all-time favorite and has recently been published in an audio version. Another great read isThe Zen of Eating, more cerebral but wonderful.
Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.