LITTLE ROCK — With the rapid pace of many modern households, preparing dinner and finding time to focus on family can sometimes seem like just another chore, officials say.
But meals — especially dinner, when everyone has a lot to “unpack” from their day — can be a key opportunity for strengthening family bonds on a daily basis, said Brittney Schrick, assistant professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“It may be the only time all day the parents have been able to speak to each other,” said Schrick, who recently wrote about the importance of the “family table” on the Division of Agriculture’s Family Fridays Blog.
“It may be the only time the cook of the family can be alone. Your table may have been taken over by homework or clutter. It may feel impossible to connect after a long day apart. Whatever reasons you may have for not sitting down together on most nights of the week, I challenge you to reevaluate them and consider the value of the family table,” she said.
Connection and interaction
Schrick references social research that emphasizes the idea of a family table as “a source of connection and interaction,” and a place for parents to provide good examples of healthy eating choices and portion control.
“Kids who eat regular meals around a table with their families do better in school, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as substance use as teenagers,” writes Schrick.
Schrick outlines several keys to success, including involving spouses and children in the meal preparation process, keeping meal plans relatively simple if the cook’s culinary skills are somewhat limited, being realistic about the number of evenings everyone will be able to eat together each week and limiting the interference of televisions, smart phones and other electronic devices during family meals.
“An occasional meal in front of the TV can be fun, but it can lead to disconnection and some poor eating habits if most meals are eaten in front of the TV,” Schrick said. “If your family needs background noise, consider turning on music you all enjoy.”
Of course, making conversation can sometimes be difficult — even among close-knit families. Schrick offers tips on how to get the ball rolling. She suggests designating one member of the family as “questioner of the day,” engaging in ice-breaking games such as “I-Spy” or “20 questions,” and focusing on the people actually at the table, rather than bemoaning what chores need to be done after dinner.
Planning ahead is also key to a successful family dinner, no matter how many times it’s been done, Schrick said.
She also recommends keeping the family meal table as clutter-free as possible at all times, not just when you’re about to sit down and eat.
Above all, Schrick said, don’t become discouraged if the first family meal in a while doesn’t go quite as planned.
“Like anything, it takes practice and trial and error,” Schrick said. “What works for one family may be a bust for another. The common goal is to eat meals together to connect with one another. How that looks for your family will be different than how it looks for mine.”
Readers may see Schrick’s full blog post and others at the Family Fridays Blog at https://www.uaex.edu/health-living/personal-family-well-being/family-life-fridays-blog/.
To learn more about preparing nutritious meals, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.edu.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without discrimination.
— Ryan McGeeney is with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.