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We pay so much attention to what our kids eat these days. We want them to develop healthy eating habits and be properly nourished so that their bodies and minds can thrive. So, we hand them veggie sticks instead of potato chips, whole grain bread instead of white, and natural fruit juice instead of soda.
While healthy eating no doubt contributes to our children’s’ well-being, when it comes to mealtimes it certainly isn’t the only thing that does. Dinnertime rituals seem to be just as important as what’s for dinner, according to a plethora of child development studies. The consensus is that kids who eat dinner with their families not only do better in school, they also seem to be happier, healthier, and have higher self-esteem, too.
Having quality conversations around the dinner table, sharing and listening to each other’s stories, and truly making the effort to connect with your children over a meal is what makes family dinner time so beneficial for your kids. Sure, broccoli helps, but creating a safe, supportive environment seems to be key.
This is the kind of environment we strive to create at Kennolyn Camps when we eat together as a community. Connecting over food is powerful for our campers, and we encourage them to take mealtimes to get to know each other. With that in mind, let’s look at a few different mealtime rituals you can incorporate into your family dinners to maximize the benefits this sacred time undoubtedly has on your children.
Using mealtime to teach our children how to be grateful can be very beneficial for their long-term emotional health, as studies have shown that gratitude practices can enhance one’s sense of well-being. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to say grace—you can practice gratitude even if you aren’t religious. The important thing is that your children learn to be appreciative and thankful—which in turn boosts positive thought processes.
There are many ways you can practice gratitude at your dinner table. One friend of mine joins hands with her family while they take turns saying one thing that they are grateful for. Another friend is a lot more casual about it and simply asks his kids to tell him about one positive thing that happened in each of their days.
You can also get extra creative and make gratitude jars. Before you eat dinner, get your children to write down one thing they are grateful for on a little piece of paper and place the papers in their own jars. Talk about what they wrote, and then set the jars aside. Whenever your kids come to the table feeling sad after a bad day, or simply can’t think of anything they are grateful for, they can draw a paper from their jar to remind them of the good things in their life. This activity can quickly shift one’s consciousness from a negative space to a positive one.
If conversations don’t come all that naturally at your dinner table, there are a few things you can try that will help your kids connect. The first, which is one we use at camp, is table topics. Table topics are basically questions that get conversation going around the table. At dinnertime, someone selects a card from the deck and everyone has to go around and answer it. For instance, it could be a question like, “If you could start your own business, what would it be?” Or, “What do you love most about your school?” These questions often flow naturally into interesting discussion, but if it dies out just choose another card! Remember, if you don’t want to purchase a set, you can easily make your own deck of fun questions.
Another technique for creating connection at the dinner table is to play a card game. When my wife was a kid, she played cribbage with her family at almost every meal. Not only was it a great way to learn math skills, it also provided family meals with a focus when conversation was difficult, and encouraged her to come to the table and sit for a while—even when she was a teenager and would have rather been in her room.
Learning to eat mindfully and develop a healthy relationship with food is integral to a child’s health and well-being. Teaching your kids to pay attention to what it is they are eating is invaluable when it comes to portion control, as they learn to be more in-tune to their hunger and fullness signals. At camp, we encourage kids to focus on their food and their friends, and avoid too many distractions when eating. Some kids are used to eating in front of the TV, so when they come to camp they have a much healthier dining experience, as studies show that when kids eat mindlessly in front of the TV, they are likely to consume more than they otherwise would.
Take advantage of family mealtime to teach your kids nutrition basics, too. It doesn’t need to be anything complicated—even just talking about different foods and what they do for your body is a good start. This may require a little Googling, but you can learn alongside your kids. Say, for instance, you are having steamed carrots, roasted chicken, and rice for dinner. Talk to your kids about the wonderful things carrots can do for your eyesight (support healthy vision), or that chicken can do for your muscles (make them big and strong!). You can even show them what a healthy serving size looks like, and encourage them to serve themselves, so they learn to take only what they think they can eat.
If teaching your kids nutrition isn’t really your thing, don’t fret. Just the act of eating dinner with your children has been linked to healthier body weight, consuming more nutritious food, and a healthier relationship with food.
While we all know that it isn’t always possible with our busy lives, making a point of eating dinner with your kids on a regular basis (about four times a week) is integral to their well-being and development. Going the extra mile to instill gratitude, encourage communication and engagement, and emphasize nutrition will benefit your children even more. You will get just as much enjoyment and benefit out of it as they will—and you will be a closer family because of it.
At Kennolyn Camps, we treat our campers like our family. We believe that eating meals together strengthens bonds, rejuvenates the spirit, and encourages healthy eating habits. Get in touch to learn more about our special location, and how we make mealtimes matter.
Image Source: Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture