Want to help your kids succeed in school and in life? Just do one simple thing.
It’s no gimmick. “Twenty years of research later, the family dinner has been proven to be one of the very best things we can do to raise healthy, happy kids,” said Dr. Lisa Leggio, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. “The family dinner is an ideal location for parents to role-model healthy eating habits, good table manners and respectful conversation.”
Yes, you say, but who has time these days to actually cook and serve a meal at home—much less actually sit down together at a dining room table?? Don’t stress—take a few moments to clear the clutter from that table, sit down with a cup of coffee and read on for these easy ways to get the family dinner on your schedule, courtesy of the Family Dinner Project:
- Aim for a family dinner at least five times a week. Why five? Well, mainly because all those years of research were based on this number. “The goal is to schedule time every week where you and your family can have quality conversations about things going on in their lives, ask for advice, share values and talk about issues,” said Leggio. And have some fun with it: It doesn’t actually have to be on that dining room table and it doesn’t have to be dinner; bring a picnic to your child’s soccer game, for example, or enjoy family brunch or a snack together.
- Do all your cooking on the weekends or when you have time. Instead of spending an hour cooking every night, find a couple of hours on the weekend or whenever your schedule allows to put together a few casseroles or a giant pot of soup that can be frozen into meal-size portions. Or, make double batches every time you cook and freeze half. Another option is that old standby: the slow cooker. Just pop in your ingredients in the morning, turn it on and your meal will be ready when you walk in the door at 6 p.m.
- Have some quick meals at the ready. Breakfast for dinner is a great option that can include all your protein, carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables. Just fry up some eggs and pancakes, and serve it up with a delicious fruit and vegetable smoothie. Your grocery store has some great shortcuts too: Think about a ready-made rotisserie chicken, rolls and a fresh salad loaded with veggies. Another quick option that’s a kid-pleaser is make-your-own-pizza night or build-your-own-taco night. Just buy ready-made dough, pizza crusts or taco shells, cook up your choice of protein, chop up your veggies, gather other additions like cheese, and that’s it.
- Do a meal swap. Think supper club with a twist. Get together with, say, four other families (good cooks are a plus!) and agree to each make a quadruple batch of a favorite dish to swap with one another. Each of you then gets three great—and different from your usual repertoire—meals to try.
- Use the time to connect. “While family meals have been shown to improve physical health and teach kids how to eat healthily, the biggest benefit is how the conversation around that dinner table helps improve children’s vocabulary, reading ability, overall academic performance, behavior and well-being,” said Leggio. So turn off the technology and make mealtime fun and engaging. (And do your best not to nag children about their eating habits. It’s been shown that if parents are consistent—and nonchalant!—about whether children choose to eat or not, it is more likely children will actually eat what’s on the table; they won’t let themselves go hungry.)
Play music (let your kids take turns choosing) or play conversation games like “Fact or Fiction” or “I Spy.” Share stories about your lives, including when your children were babies. Ask open-ended questions, and bring up real-world events and other topics that may be important to your family. The family dinner is also a wonderful time to learn about your child’s hopes, dreams and plans for the future.
And consider this: On average, it likely only takes about an hour or so to make, eat and enjoy a family dinner—but the benefits? They last a lifetime.
From newborns to adolescents, kids come first at Children’s Hospital of Georgia. To find out more visit augustahealth.org/chog or call 706-721-KIDS (5437) to make an appointment for your child today.