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Martina Gornik-Marion
May/June 2018

Are family meals becoming a thing of the past?

Thirty per cent of Canadians find it challenging to fit in meals with friends or family, and say that busy work schedules and evenings jam-packed with activities are the biggest barriers to eating together. In fact, roughly one-third of Canadians never or seldom eat together as a family.

Growing up, my family ate supper together every night at 5:30. Some of my most vivid memories are from mealtimes shared with my family. Whether it was laughter over a funny story, a heated debate with my father or learning a variety of wives-tales from my mother - I've seen how food has the potential to create great moments.

Families who eat together have a more nutritious and balanced diet, and enjoy a greater variety of foods. While food provides us with the nutrients we need, sharing meals gives us the opportunity to communicate, learn, listen and share traditions with one another. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and sharing meals together with others can be especially beneficial for people of all ages.

Children in particular benefit from family mealtimes. Children who eat meals together with parents and siblings tend to eat more vegetables, fruit and calcium-rich foods. They also have overall better eating habits, especially when these habits are role-modelled by parents and other adults. For example, kids who eat with their families will consume less sugar-sweetened beverages, like soft drinks, juice and energy drinks, and have a lower risk of being overweight or developing an eating disorder.

In addition to providing a nutritional advantage, family meals also generate discussions and debates that can help preschoolers enhance their vocabulary and lead to children and teens getting better grades in school. Connections are fostered between parents and children during mealtimes and, in fact, can impact children later in their teens. Teens who eat meals with family more often are less likely to smoke and use drugs or alcohol.

Photo of a large family eating togther at the dinner table

Sharing meals also benefits adults. We simply eat better, enjoy more vegetables and fruits, consume fewer carbonated beverages, and eat less food from fast food restaurants. These are all positive habits that can reduce risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The benefits are even more far-reaching as we age.

For many older adults, cooking for one and eating alone is not pleasurable, leading to poor food intake and greater rates of malnutrition. Older adults who enjoy meals with others eat a better quality and quantity of food, therefore improving their overall nutritional status and health. It has also been shown that in residential care settings, older adults eating family-style meals is linked with improvements in sensory, physical and psychosocial functioning.

How can you reap the social, emotional and health benefits of the family meal?

Here are a few tips:

  • Be realistic. If you don't already regularly eat meals with others, schedule at least one meal per week when family and/or friends can come together to share a meal. Increase the frequency each week as you can.
  • Be flexible with planning. Share breakfast or lunch, if that works best for your family. It doesn't have to be the evening meal.
  • When possible, try to schedule activities around the family meal, but when all else fails, sharing a meal could be a picnic in the park before soccer. It doesn't have to be around the kitchen table.
  • It's easier when everyone helps out. Get children to help with age-appropriate tasks, get older children to start food preparation ahead of time, or enlist friends to bring over one dish to balance out the meal.
  • Keep mealtime conversation positive. For families with children, focus on the stories of the day and not what is or is not eaten by your child.
  • If your family or social circle is small or your cooking skill is limited, search out community kitchens in your area. Community kitchens offer a space where people can learn to cook, share meals together, learn about nutrition, have fun and build connections.

To discover more about the potential of food and the Dietitians of Canada Nutrition Month campaign, visit nutritionmonth2018.ca.

Martina Gornik-Marion is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

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