“If kids aren’t welcomed into the conversation, or if there’s criticism, you’re not going to see the benefits,” said Fishel, author of the book “Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.” “There’s nothing magical about lasagna in itself.”
Among other points made in the interview, Dr. Fishel offered suggestions for families who may be too busy to gather around the dinner table every night. She also encouraged parents to involve kids actively in food preparation, which can lighten the workload as well as heighten children’s interest in family meals by giving them ownership of the process.
Learn more about the Canadian study and read the article in full on The Boston Globe’s website.
The advice to play with your food may sound messy, even subversive. I certainly grew up being told not to play with mine. As a mother myself, I wasn’t happy when my son confessed he had earned a week long detention for his leadership in a middle school food fight.
But I’ve come to see that the kitchen isn’t just a workstation for family dinners: It can also be a place for play. And when kids play at the dinner table, they linger longer and eat better.
So with apologies to my mother, here are six reasons you should encourage your kids to play with their food…
Read my six reasons for letting kids play with their food on Mind, Body, Green.
As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia back up my enthusiasm for family dinners. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit. And that nightly dinner doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal that took three hours to cook, nor does it need to be made with organic arugula and heirloom parsnips.
For starters, researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud….
Find out how family dinners boost academic performance, improve kids’ health and emotional well-being, improve behavior, and lower risk factors on The Washington Post.
You can now pre-order the new book by Anne Fishel, Home For Dinner, Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.
It will be published by Amacom in January 2015. According to the publisher’s website:
“Kids need more than food. They’re starving for family dinners.
Sports, activities, long hours, and commutes—with so much to do, dinner has been bumped to the back burner.
But research shows that family dinners offer more than just nutrition. Studies have tied shared meals to increased resiliency and self-esteem in children, higher academic achievement, a healthier relationship to food, and even reduced risk of substance abuse and eating disorders.
Written by a Harvard Medical School professor and mother, Home for Dinner makes a passionate and informed plea to put mealtime back at the center of family life and supplies compelling evidence and realistic tips for getting even the busiest of families back to the table.”
I don’t know about you, but when I come home from a long day at work, I like to change my clothes, grab a handful of almonds (or cookies if it’s been a particularly challenging day), and curl up with the newspaper. I’d rather not answer a whole lot of questions until I’ve had a chance to decompress. I think many children may feel something similar after a long day at school.
And there may be other reasons why kids are monosyllabic. It could be that they’ve been answering questions all day and now want a break, or that they’re so hungry and tired that one word is all they can muster. Perhaps they’ve got a lot on their mind, and the question you asked isn’t interesting to them. Or maybe they just don’t feel like talking, but want your quiet company.
Of course, it’s impossible to know if your child won’t tell you, which is the Catch-22. Here are a few tips that have worked for me over the years with my children, and with child patients who are sometimes reluctant to volunteer information. I can’t guarantee that they will always work, or work for every child. Only you know your child well enough to predict which, if any, of these approaches may help you and your child have more after school conversation.
- A hungry child is often a silent child. If he’s running on empty, it’s hard to summon the energy to tell stories about school. It may be best to hold all questions until he’s sitting down with a snack.
- As your day rolls along, try collecting small stories that may interest or amuse your children, like something mischievous the dog did during the day, a funny exchange with a neighbor, or your worry about almost running out of gas. Then, when you reunite with your child, start with a story of your own. This kind of modeling often helps get the ball rolling, and means that you are offering something before asking for something.
Of any age group, teens may have the most to gain from eating dinner with their families. Numerous studies over the last 15 years reveal that dinners can protect teens from engaging in a host of risky behaviors: smoking, drinking, getting pregnant, developing an eating disorder, and using drugs. Teens who dine with their families also report experiencing less overall stress, feeling more known by their parents, and having better relationships with them. (CASA, 2012)
Why do family dinners offer such benefits? The simplest answer is that dinner is a reliable occasion for teens to feel connected to their parents. It is this connection that provides the real seat belt on the potholed road of adolescence.
Dinnertime also creates the opportunity for parents to check in and monitor their teens’ behavior without putting their kids on the hot seat. Instead, questions about their day are softened by answering while enjoying a delicious meal, and by hearing about everyone else’s funny tales of the day. The really good news is that when teenagers are asked to list the activities they most enjoy, family dinner is consistently ranked high on that list. That said, teens can be sulky, irritable, prickly and challenging, and may not make the easiest dinner companions. Not only that, but their schedules may seem too busy to fit in regular dinners, what with sports practices, afterschool jobs, hours of homework, and heavy social media upkeep.
So, how can parents make dinner compelling for adolescents, and enjoyable for everyone else in the family?
While Valentine’s Day is often about sugar highs and overpriced romantic dinners, it is, at heart, a celebration of love. It can also be the springboard for talk about love—not just as a one-time, special event during a dinner of red foods and chocolate-dipped strawberries, but as part of your nightly routine.
For most of us, food is a metaphor for love, and surely getting a home-cooked meal on the table most nights should suffice. But what if you also want to have more conversations that promote love?
I think that at the core of love is the capacity to show up and tune in to another person’s experience. This is an experience that starts at the beginning of life, when a parent soothes a baby with a calm voice, a gentle gaze and relaxing cuddling. It is this feeling that someone else “gets me” that continues to be essential to making deep connections with others. Being able “to get” someone else is what empathy is all about.
When children are toddlers, they start to develop the capacity for empathy—not only can they comfort themselves, but they also can comfort others. When my younger son (at an age when he wasn’t yet making sentences) saw his brother crying, he quietly climbed a chair and reached for a box of Band Aids—not a perfect solution to hurt feelings, but certainly a sign of brotherly empathy. The capacity to feel empathy — ‘How you feel matters to me’ –is part of our wiring as humans and forms the basis of all types of love: sibling, parental, as well as romantic.
So, how can this capacity for empathy be woven into our everyday table discussions?