Tabled Togetherness

Eating and chatting with your kids at the dining table lifts family happiness

Family at tableThe good news is - in spite of our hectic and frenzied lifestyle, career preoccupation and stress - family dinner is alive and well.

More than 60 per cent of families, studies suggest, are reported to eat dinner together at least five times each week in cities.

The bad news is for four out of six families, the focus is not related to one another, but TV. A disparaging, and unhealthy, practice.

Experts observe, and for good reasons, that eating together as a family provides healthy benefits. Research also suggests that children who eat more family meals are apt to eat more vegetables and fruits. They aren't as likely as other kids who binge on fried foods and unhealthy snack foods and compensate their grievance for not being able to eat meals with their families.

Says Judith Toews, nutritionist and co-author of Raising Happy Healthy Weight Wise Kids: "When parents and children eat together, they're not only more likely to enjoy a healthy variety of foods, but they're also more likely to talk together, and this makes such a difference to kids' health and happiness. Families are so busy these days that sometimes a meal together means picking up something at the drive through on the way to a soccer game. If families aren't sitting down and eating together, they're less likely to know what's happening with each other."

A study published in the Archives of Family Medicine, for instance, showed a connection between family meals and the quality of diet. Kids and teens that ate with their families quite regularly had higher intakes of several nutrients, including fibre, calcium, folate, iron, essential vitamins and minerals. The study also indicated that as children get older, they tend to eat fewer meals with their family. While more than half of nine-year-olds, in the study, ate family dinners every day, just one-third of the 14-year-olds ate dinner with the family. Worse, a shocking 17 per cent of children in the study said they seldom ate dinner with their families.

Create the atmosphere

First things, first. You need to make eating time and place a welcome "haven" - a time that makes the most of your mealtime conversations. It would sound harsh, but you need to begin by not answering the telephone. Let your answering machine do the job for you - to pick up calls and/or turn off the telephone ringer. This applies equally well to your cell phone - keep your mobile switched off or place it in silent mode, if at all required. You'd also do well to take care of other diversions, especially radio, music system, television; or, PC, if it is in close proximity to the eating area.

As we all know kids often take more time to eat than adults, so you should avoid getting up to clean the table. Which only means that you should sit back, and spend time talking to your family. You will be happy for it. Conversations bring a new spark to relationships; they light up the heart!

You may have noticed that it is sometimes difficult to start a conversation. Also, talking is difficult - which is one major reason why people and families watch television as they eat. This is, indeed, the foundation of comfort eating and excess weight [obesity], because you don't really know what you are eating.

Also, when you focus on TV, not your palate, or stomach, you gulp food in haste. You also don't allow your taste buds and the mechanism of mastication or chewing food to savour your food. Remember, eating morsel by morsel is meditation. It gives you the ability to relate to your senses in a way that acquaints you to the soul of eating - a natural act that we are all endowed with ever since we are born, but tend to forget down the line.

  1. Turn off your TV, when you are at the dining table, and engage your family to talk on various topics - from sport to a new song in the air
  2. The topics you could discuss may be anything, but not serious or stressful
  3. You can crack a wise remark, or share a joke.

Research has shown that children are quite often more fascinated in talking about friends, music and television programmes. The most common mistake parents make is they don't seem to allow them to do so. Worse, parents are often too keyed to focus their energies on their kids' school activity, the mark-sheet, and family gossip, or celebration.

There is also yet another important thing you could indulge in, and with good effect:

  • Focus on positive, pleasant things in life
  • Steer clear of unpleasant topics, analysis, and criticism. Also, never dent your child's self-esteem through scrutiny
  • Don't allow your speech to lead to a stressful situation, or spoil your party and your kids' sensitivities or sensibilities.

Joint-Enterprise

It is an accepted fact that children "influence" your provision or grocery purchase - reason enough why you need to enrol them in shopping and cooking. It sounds simple, nay a waste of time proposition. In reality, it is not. Rather, it is one great way to strengthen your kids' numbers or arithmetic skills. Children will delight in getting their measures and mixing ingredients right. It also leads them to suggest their own "treats" - which all add to your repertoire of recipes.

Getting your children engaged will also lead to another huge bonus. It gives you the opportunity to discuss health-related issues, illness, and wellbeing, including food safety. This will slowly enable them to also take an active part, not a forced role, to help set up and clear or clean the table.

Another equally interesting idea that your kids will slowly begin to like is when you ask them to make a check-list of ingredients, and go to the grocery store to do the purchase. Getting to know grocery will subsequently educate them on the nutritional value of various foods and also aid them to work within the framework of a given budget.

Inference: all of us ought to encourage kids and adults alike to establish positive food, table and eating habits. Or, eating patterns that aid us, and our children to lead healthier lives. The best thing you'd do is to offer children a variety of choices from all food groups - cereals, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat products. When you follow this habit, and set an example, it is most likely that your children will also follow suit and opt for food that is nutritious.

There is a catch to this, though. Do not tag foods as "good" or "bad." If you do that, wittingly or unwittingly, you have already done enough to bring about the divide. In other words, you have set a stage where your children feel disadvantaged, mainly because they feel they don't have the option to choose certain foods. This leads them to finding other ways to snack on them, which won't do them any good.

Is there a way out? Yes, there is - you need to inculcate in your children a sense of openness to know what ideally denotes healthy eating practices at the dining table. You need to also tell them that the key to good health is eating healthy food in moderation, not through elimination diet, at the dining table.

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Rajgopal Nidamboor
Rajgopal Nidamboor, a trained physician, is a writer, commentator, and author. In a career spanning 25 years, Nidamboor has published over 2,000 articles, on a variety of subjects, two coffee table books, an E-book, and a primer on therapeutics, aside from an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy.

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