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UAPB Specialist Offers Advice on Family Meals

Busy schedules, increasing responsibilities and family structures often make it difficult for families to spend time together, especially at mealtime, according to Teresa Henson, extension specialist-program outreach coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. According to research, the evening meal is one of the best times for families to reconnect, share daily events and work on their relationships.

“Breaking bread together promotes good nutrition,” Henson said. “School-aged children eating alone in front of the television tend to overeat, while younger children eat less nutritious foods when isolated at meals.”

Children who regularly eat with their family tend to have healthier eating patterns with more fruits and vegetables and less fried foods, soda and saturated fat than those who do not eat regularly with their families, she said. Children who eat with their families tend to have a higher intake of calcium, iron, fiber and vitamins — essential for their growing bodies, according to a news release.

“Children learn and form many habits during mealtime. Establishing positive eating habits help children build better skills that last a lifetime,” Henson said. “As families pass the bread and pour the milk, they also convey values and establish traditions. They get an opportunity to work on good manners, which includes appropriate table conversation and paying attention to others.”

For example, when each family member takes a turn to speak and listen, it reinforces the importance of polite conversation, she said. They also learn many less tangible qualities of human living such as courtesy, appreciation, consideration and respect.

Henson offers the following mealtime suggestions:

Make mealtime pleasant. Children learn social skills from watching and listening to adults. Be positive. For example, say, “You are keeping your elbows off the table; that’s good.” Set a good example by taking turns talking and listening without interruption. Postpone negative conversations about grades or behavior until another time. Don’t text or talk on the phone at mealtime.

Use mealtime as a time to learn good manners. Tell them good manners are a way of showing respect for others and will help them feel more confident in social situations when they are away from home.

Be creative and flexible about when and where you eat. Make the most of every opportunity instead of worrying about following a strict schedule. Remember that family meals can be shared at home, in a restaurant, at a park or near the playing field. Eat with your children whenever possible, even if it isn’t daily.

Serve a variety of foods. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan as a guide when planning meals. Nutritionists say that a parent’s job is to offer a variety of foods in a pleasant atmosphere; the child’s job is to choose how much and whether or not to eat.

Encourage children to taste a small bite of each food served. Don’t label foods as good or bad, healthy or junk foods. You may set up a situation where your children may feel deprived of certain foods and may find other ways to eat them. If you offer all types of foods with a trusting atmosphere, your children will likely choose a nutritious variety.

Keep meals simple and easy. Save the elaborate menus for when you can prepare and enjoy them. Enjoy the shared experience; those memories will stay with family members. Don’t let family mealtime fall to the wayside because of busy schedules.

Eliminate interruptions and distractions. Create a welcoming atmosphere and make the most of your mealtime by trying these ideas:

— Turn off the television, cellphone and radio so everyone can focus on the conversation without distraction.

— Don’t answer the phone. Let the person leave a message or turn off the ringer to avoid interruptions; you can call the person back after dinner.

— Remember, children often take more time to eat than adults. Take your time through dinner and enjoy the extra few minutes sitting at the table before cleaning up.

— “Sometimes, an effortless act can have meaningful, long-lasting benefits. According to parenting and health experts, that is the case with family mealtimes,” Henson said. “Eating and talking together can help children be happier, healthier and more successful at school. Family mealtimes can also help make parenting easier.”

Source: Arkansas Democrat Gazette