The Lost Tradition of Family Mealtime

In my early career, I was a school district’s Food and Nutrition Director.  I was young and wanted to be great at my job, but didn’t have children of my own yet so I immersed myself in childhood nutrition.  Blogs, conferences and library books served as my “post-graduate” degree as I became well studied on childhood obesity, school nutrition politics, and how food is marketed to kids and their families.

It was in this time of my career that I learned that 20% of meals consumed by Americans - adults and children - is in the car.  

For those of you bad at math like me, that is 1 in every 5 meals.  Meaning, every other day, a family is eating a meal in the car.

I get it.  It’s easy to eat in the car.  Fast food and drive-throughs make it a cinch.  Food is packaged in a way that almost anything can be handheld.  

Not to mention, we are busy.  

Families are on the go all day from the hustled morning routine to all the activities that each evening brings.  Eating in the car seems like a “life-hack” or “optimization” for the manic lifestyle most modern families lead.  

Why waste that energy on cooking dinner and getting everyone in the same place when we have such a convenient solution?

Because eating together at the tables that were created in our homes is meaningful.  It’s important.  

And, it’s not just good for the kids; but, good for us, too.

It’s no secret that fast food and convenience foods are not good for us.  By preparing our own meals, we control the ingredients, nutrients, and more.  This is great for our waistlines and in preventing obesity in our children.  And, by modeling the behavior of eating balanced meals and trying new foods, children are more apt to make healthier food choices when not at home too.

But, it’s not just a child’s physical well-being that benefits from home-cooked meals.  When families eat together, there is a great opportunity for connection and conversation.  These moments lead to a developed sense of belonging to a stronger performance in school and even helps to prevent things like depression or reckless behavior, such as drug use.  

With littles, the thought of grades and peer pressure may seem far away, but dinner is a great opportunity to learn language skills and work on manners.  It’s been thought that dining with your toddler is even better than reading them a book.

No matter the age, help in the preparation of the meal is part of it too.  Skills as basic as cracking eggs or stirring a bowl are perfect for little hands.  As they grow, setting the table, simple chopping and recipe reading are also great skills to acquire.  All kids can, and should, even help with menu planning.  

Through the prep and dining experience, the whole family has the opportunity to celebrate traditions and create new ones too.  

So, how does it happen?

Like most things in parenthood, not overnight.  

Start with one night a week, then add another, and remember, it doesn’t have to all be dinner.  A Friday family breakfast or Sunday brunch can be just as impactful… and fun!  

And, that’s the point, above all else keep it fun.  Try new things.  Keep it simple.  Don’t strive for perfect.  Have fun.

Here are a few of our ideas: 

  • Keep an eye on holidays - especially the silly ones like International Carrot Day (April 4) or National Picnic Day (April 23). 
  • Have a Theme Night: Base it on a country, a movie, or even just a color.
  • Make dinner a bar.  Think baked potato, salad, tacos, grain bowls and more!  Everyone will love customizing their own meal.
    • Create a connectivity practice, be it saying grace, sharing gratitude, or even the highs and lows of the day.

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