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Parenting

Why Dining Together Builds Unshakable Bonds

As life becomes busier for moms and dads and their children, family dining has fallen by the wayside, though research shows that finding time to eat together has many benefits.

hey-mom-whats-for-dinnerFamilies who sit down and eat supper together at home are more likely to eat healthier, since they are more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables and eat less trans fat, thus lessening risk for obesity and heart disease. Other studies show that teenagers who dine with their families have better grades, better communicate with their parents and are less likely to be depressed or suicidal, use drugs or alcohol, or develop eating disorders.

Slowing Down to Enjoy One Another.

Family dining is important for children at any age. It helps build a stronger relationship with their mother, father and siblings and helps them develop a better appreciation for food.

"If food is viewed as something to be gobbled down while standing, watching TV, at a fast food joint or in the car hopping from event to event, it cheapens food in our lives," explains Debra Schleef, a sociology professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington. "We also do not eat as well and this is related to the increase in obesity and diabetes in our society."

Though Schleef realizes that family demands, such as work, school, extra-curricular activities and other obligations limit the time family members can spend with each other, she is a proponent of dining together as often as possible.

Here are some ways to make dining together as a family fun and special:

Designate a special plate for accomplishments.
- Johnny got an A on a test? Susie got the lead in the school play? Dad got a big promotion at work? That night, serve their meal on a special plate in celebration of the honor.
-,Have an indoor picnic
- Lay a blanket on the family room floor and have an indoor picnic. Little ones will enjoy inviting some favorite stuffed animals to the picnic.

Mix It Up
- Try having breakfast for dinner one night, or eating dinner courses backward with dessert being served first. Surely, that will be a hit with the kids!

Make It Make-Your-Own
- Set up a taco or nacho bar with all the fixings and have each family member make their own meal. Set out various toppings for pizza night or try make-your-own shish kabobs with different meats and veggies to satisfy everyone's cravings.

Break Out The China
- Don't save the good dishes for a special occasion. Try serving Sunday dinner actually at the dining room table, complete with the fancy tablecloths, napkins and china.

"If you are sitting down to dinner every night, you are spending more time together," says Schleef. "If you are spending only one or two nights at dinner and you expect that to be quality time with nice manners, good food and flowing conversation, it is not going to happen, especially with young children or teenagers. You need time for the spills, the fights, the whining and the picky eaters. It is all part of the messiness of families. It is probably the only time of the day when many families are all together.

Adds Holly Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, "Eating meals together is an important time for families to socialize and bond. They can talk about any issues the kids may be experiencing and how to handle them, which is part of the benefit. But, often, it is simply spending quality time together that builds a bond that can be called on in a time of need. It's really important too that the TV and other distractions like cell phones and texting are turned off during meal times."

Getting Everyone Involved.

Schleef encourages parents to involve all family members in the dinner preparation.

"If you cook the food yourself and all sit at the table, you are also forcing you and the family to slow down the pace of your lives, share your days good and bad and enjoy the time together and the meal, even if simply prepared," she says. "You are creating something together, especially if children are involved in the cooking, setting of the table and cleaning. This should not be viewed as a chore, but again as time spent together engaged in the important work of the family."

Four to Five Times per Week.

Ideally, Schleef recommends dining together four or five times a week. Many Fredericksburg parents appreciate the notion of family dining. Lisa Mendoza tries to eat with her 5-year-old daughter at least three times a week.

"We consider it important as a time to reinforce manners, self-help skills, talk about our days and discuss plans for the next day," she says. "I think it helps our relationship because it is one of the few times of the day when we actually sit together and are unplugged. We tell a lot of jokes, talk about our days, and discuss memories associated to the foods."

"I consider dining together as a family important," agrees Chrissy Cox, who eats dinner with her husband and three children at least four nights a week. "For us, it is a time we can all sit together distraction and electronics free to focus on connecting with each other after being off in different directions throughout the day."

Building a Tradition.

Sarah McIntosh always ate dinner with her family as a child and hopes to continue the tradition now that she has started her own family.

"Growing up, my mom made sure we were always able to eat dinner together, which could mean that dinner time ranged between 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on some occasions when planning around my dad's work shift and high school sports schedules," McIntosh says. "During this season in our family's life, dining together is not relaxing since we have a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old, but it is still a special time together. We are committed to making time for eating together, so I imagine that we will continue to do our best planning around various schedules in the changing seasons of our family life."

Eating together doesn't necessarily have to be at suppertime.

"If families can't always eat dinner together, they can also consider making a point to eat breakfast together too," notes Schiffrin. "Generally, something is better than nothing. Kids need to know that their parents are not too busy to sit down and talk to them and that they care about what's going on in their lives. Eating is a great opportunity for those conversations."

Brandy Centolanza is a freelance writer who covers health, education, parenting, travel and community issues. She eats dinner with her husband and two children every night.

 

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