We've all heard about the benefits of the family that cooks and shares a sit-down dinner together. The reality is, it's so easy to let hectic work, school schedules and well, other priorities, get in the way. We're all guilty of it. But do you know that a sit-down mealtime where families are sharing ideas and food has been shown to protect against risk factors in kids like obesity, drug and alcohol abuse? That it also promotes increased academic performance in kids and more openness with the family?
This act of sharing a meal has become so overlooked in a fast-paced on-the-go society where it seems like we have no time for it, and Licensed Professional Counselor Jennifer Palermo of Southwest Psychotherapy Associates says it's time to start making mealtimes the priority again.
"Sometimes we put off eating in order to do these other things, but in the end, it's eating that we need more than being able to play football or play the piano, or do math. Because if we don't nurture our bodies and keep ourselves healthy, none of that really matters," says the Houston-based counselor.
"There's going to be pushback, but there's always the great line that I'm your parent and my role is to keep you safe, and one of the ways I'm keeping you safe is teaching you how to feed yourself and provide for yourself," - Jennifer Palermo
If you can, start this thinking early. Teach your kids that the fundamental needs like sleeping and eating should be the priority. If you're a little late to the game or think your family needs an intervention, it's going to be a little harder but it's definitely possible.
"There's going to be pushback, but there's always the great line that I'm your parent and my role is to keep you safe, and one of the ways I'm keeping you safe is teaching you how to feed yourself and provide for yourself," says Palermo.
So how do you get started?
You first want to emphasize that preparing meals and clean-up is a family effort. As Palermo says, "It's not mom's work, it's not the nanny's work, it's not just the cleaning lady's work."
Start by making preparing a meal a team effort and giving them choices for various roles they can play. Giving pre-teens and teens some choice will make them feel like they have a real role in the production. Next, choose something that they would actually want to eat and something they can make again and again in the future, like this Slow Cooker Spaghetti Bolognese.
Grocery shopping, preparing the meal, and eating the creation is all a great time to bond with your kids. It is undeniably important to create an open and communicative environment where they feel they can talk about anything.
"You want [it] to be a way to share ideas and share yourself," says Palermo.
That doesn't mean asking, “How was your day?” and expecting your child to just talk, talk, talk.
"That doesn’t really feel good for the kid," Palermo explains. "They want to be part of a conversation, and oftentimes it gives them the opportunity to hear from the parents in ways that are not 'clean up your room,' 'don’t forget your homework,' and 'did you feed the dog.'"
Stumped about where to start?
Palermo recommends making dinner time fun with games like Table Talk cards where both parents and kids can answer 'What If' questions or what they would do in a certain scenario. This encourages conversations about feelings and ideas instead of falling back on talking about schedules or to-dos.
The great thing about making the kitchen and dinner table 'safe spaces' where the kids feel seen and heard, is that they will start to look forward to mealtimes. It gives them a place to share things that they care about, but also things that are hard or that are scaring them. It's a way that teens can exert their growing independence, but also continue to connect with mom and the rest of the family over a satisfying meal.