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Establishing Healthy Eating Patterns In Children during Family Dinner

Updated on October 11, 2012

The Family Dinner Table

The dinner table setting influences children's behavior and development.
The dinner table setting influences children's behavior and development.

Just Eighteen Minutes A Day: Family Dinner Time

Did you know that most family dinners just take eighteen minutes? What happens during this short time has a profound affect on children and parents. Only fifty percent (50%) of families eat together and it tends to decrease as kids get older.

Studies show that families that regularly eat meals four or more times together per week:

  • Are more likely to have children who do better in school,
  • Are of average weight,
  • Are emotionally and socially stable
  • Establish healthy eating habits (and not prone to eating disorders),
  • Are less likely to use drugs and alcohol at an early age, and
  • Consume more fruits and vegetables


Shared Family Dinners

Shared family dinners are highly encouraged in promoting healthy, well balanced children in today's society. During meals, families share the day's activities, talk about upcoming events, may tell jokes or just chat in general about interesting life happenings. What is most important is that the family is together, bonding and developing patterns for continued healthy eating.

Working parents find it difficult to gather the family together to enjoy a meal. Busy schedules, kid's sports or after school activities may interfere or deter regular meal times at home. Even though studies show families who eat together fives times per week are most likely to produce kids with greater social and intellectual skills, parents can still achieve the same results if they are able to eat together at least three to four times to connect as a family.

Family dinner is a time for parents to demonstrate or model good manners. As children observe how a parent serves meals, eats and converses they learn what is appropriate (we call this etiquette). The conversation around the table is an opportunity for children to acquire new language as they listen to others talk. Families who are open to discussing problems during meal time allow children to know that failures are a normal part of life but that problem solving is crucial in making things much better.

Keeping Dinner Simple

You do not have to have a seven course meal every night. Spaghetti, pizza, tacos, sandwiches are easy, quick, cheap meals that please most appetites, including children. Make a weekly menu and shop once a week using a list. Keeping the ingredients healthy helps in providing nutritional value. If you try new food items, make it for everyone to taste.

Family Dinner Quiz

Where does your family dine together the most?

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Family Dinner in the 1950's

Resources On Family Meal Preparation and Enjoyment

How To Make Dinner Enjoyable

Conversation: Use this time to stimulate discussions about your child's day. Use open-ended questions to help you to discover what is going on in their life, remember to keep from probing for answers as it only leads to silence. Make your discussion time positive and free from distractions such as having a TV on while you eat. Viewing TV while eating has been linked to obesity in children, which is another important reason to keep it off.

Traditions: When possible sit down at the family dining table and use special dinner ware. Allowing children to eat from china will help them to appreciate fine things, and if it is an heirloom you can share the history behind it. This will help them to connect and to feel a sense of belonging. Perhaps you can set some new traditions as well. Think of how your family can do this either through certain foods you serve or habits you can begin while eating.

Language: Talking with your children at the table can be used to build language and vocabulary. Describe food with new words. Talk about the taste using descriptive language and add colorful words to your conversation in general. Share topics that will invite discussion around word meanings and spelling. A Harvard Ed School study showed that, among 143 kids, children were able to learn language more readily at dinner time than when a parent read to them.

Grace: Saying a blessing over the meal allows children to express gratitude, experience good feelings such as happiness, and to demonstrate faith. Establishing this habit will encourage positive emotions, especially if they hold hands during the prayer. This interpersonal connection creates a sense of being a part of something much larger than themselves. Many families choose to sing a song, recite poems, make a toast or to just express things they are thankful for instead of prayer. The point is to engage in a form of thanksgiving and reflection of gratitude for life's blessings.

Get children involved in preparing dinner.  They will enjoy the food better.
Get children involved in preparing dinner. They will enjoy the food better.

Sample Dinner Conversation Starters

  • How many beans do you think are on your plate?
  • Which food do you think is the best today?
  • What would you call this dish if it were served at a restaurant?
  • What would be a great theme for our dinner tonight?

Preparing For A Good Dinner

With busy schedules, making dinner is often a challenge we hate to think about. The time it takes to make a good, healthy meal for the family is limited. You also have to deal with the patience of children who may be hungry and grumpy. Eating a sit-down meal at home is the preferred method in ensuring you provide for the nutritional needs of all family members, but when time is an issue eating out or having take-out is fine. You are still eating together and building a relationship.

For meal times at home, set the table before leaving for work in the morning or do it the night before. Get kids involved in making simple meals and preparing the table. Children tend to eat well when they help in making food; because they are involved they have a better appreciation of the meal.

Plan conversations and eat slowly. Rushing through the meal does not allow food to digest well and is a cause of overeating and obesity. The Society for Research in Child Development states that sharing a meal regularly can boost children's health and wellbeing, reducing the likelihood that they'll become obese or use drugs, and increase the chances that they will do well in school.

Sharing family dinner may be hard to maintain, but establishing this important time in your day on a regular basis will let your child know that they are valued and loved.

The View: Family Dinner Time Advice


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