Do you rarely get to sit down and have a meal with your family? Here’s why you should make dinner together a family tradition.
By Divya Sreedharan
When Danielle Mascarenhas, a young mom in Bengaluru makes dinner, she always gets her children to help. So, three-year-old Sara peels garlic while seven-year-old Nikhil cuts veggies and greens for mom. Their father Rohan, sets the table and helps clean up, or takes turns to cook. Getting dinner ready makes the children feel all grown up. It is something they really look forward to. But what is more important is that the Mascarenhas couple are giving their children valuable life lessons – they see their parents sharing chores; they see love, mutual respect and caring. What's more, the Mascarenhas family now have a beautiful tradition in place: the family dinner.
Here are eight reasons why family dinners matter:
1. Dinner is the ideal time: First of all, you must be wondering why dinner, specifically. Given the busy pace of life today, dinner is literally the only occasion when the entire family is at home, at the same time. Hence, it is the ideal time to unwind, relax and enjoy each other's company. And have long conversations spiced with food, fun and laughter. After all, family meals are considered to have a special magic. A 2014 report by the American College of Pediatricians notes: “Family meals are powerful for many reasons. First, meal times impact all of our senses – the sight, touch, taste, and smell of food, as well as listening to family conversation. Family meals offer the opportunity to spend time together, reconnect after a busy day, communicate with and listen to each other, share values and ideas, and problem solve.” Sometimes, it may require juggling schedules and some advance planning, but it is essential that the entire family comes together for dinner.
2. Bond, build and bolster: Mumbai-based paediatric nutritionist Dr Neha Sanwalka Rungta stresses that family dinners are a way to connect and build healthy relationships. “With both parents working in many households, children often don’t get quality time to spend with or, know their parents better. If at least one meal a day is had together, it’s great for the parent-child relationship,” she stresses. Also, dinners don’t just help you bond better, they are also good for the soul. According to The Family Dinner Project (FDP), a non profit organisation that operates out of Harvard University in the US: “Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members.” FDP notes that “family dinners are linked to better academic performance, higher self esteem and a greater sense of resilience,” in children. For instance, conversation around a shared meal can help increase childrens' vocabulary, broaden their general knowledge and, improve their social skills.
3. Fussy eaters, table manners: You could use the family dinner as an opportunity and an occasion to convert your fussy eater into a happy eater. Dr Rungta says this is when you should get your children to try new foods as well. “Parents can use family dinners as a time to introduce their child to new tastes. A child is more likely to eat a new food, like avocado, if he sees his parents eat the same. When children see their parents eating all sorts of foods at the family dinner, they are more likely to choose those foods for themselves. After all, children learn best by example,” she points out. Besides, a family dinner is a great way to teach children table etiquette -- tell them it is not okay to throw food down, spit food out or, be wasteful. Children can also learn to sit still and not bang cutlery on the table.
4. Family cuisine and culture: Family dinners are also a great way to expose your children to traditional family recipes and foods. Dinner could be the opportune time to get your daughter to sample grandma's special pepper rasam or, her sinfully delicious methi-aloo-parathas made with a secret family recipe. Psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria, who runs Mindtemple in Mumbai, states that the family dinner can teach children “about the staple cuisine that has been prepared in the family for generations. In today's world of modern, fusion and now molecular cooking, family dinners are the only source of learning about the specialty of their own homes,” she points out. Dr Rungta, on her part, believes that “parents should also use family dinners as a occasion to talk about the importance of food, share stories about how food is grown in various parts and also, teach children traditions about food. This will make children curious to explore more food options and thereby, eat better,” adds Dr Rungta.
5. Prep them for life: Culinary expert and food consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, who runs APB Cook Studio in Mumbai, says preparing and planning meals together are wonderful life lessons for children and parents. She feels all children must know or be taught how to cook and safely handle knives, ladles and kitchen gadgets. “These are underrated but essential life skills. For, if children know how to cut, chop and cook, they will always be able to take care of themselves when they grow up,” she points out. Also families cooking and eating together should include family recipes, she stresses. "The Sunday biryani, that Nani ka rajma chawal or Papa wali mutton curry -- it is special family dishes that memories are built around and create a sense of belonging,” she points out. Incidentally, Ghildiyal and her family do weekend cookouts to bond. “We don’t go to malls for entertainment; rather, we cook together,” she smiles.
6. The family that eats together, eats healthier: Not only is the preparation of a family meal a good time to connect, eating homemade food together also makes you healthier. According to Dr Rungta, studies show that children who eat at family dinners tend to choose more of fruits and vegetables and less of soda and fried foods. “This indicates that children eat healthier at family dinners”, she points out. Family dinners are also associated with lower BMI and lower metabolic risk in children and parents alike, which may be attributed to lesser consumption of calorie-dense food and better food choices when eating with family, she observes.
7. Sharing teen troubles at the table: A family meal assumes even more significance if you have an adolescent at home. It can help bridge the gap between you and your moody teen. As Bengaluru-based psychologist Dr Sulata Shenoy points out: “The family that eats together, stays together. In our busy lives and schedules, family members hardly interact with each other, although we may live under the same roof. A family meal like dinner, helps parents to observe their children, be aware of any stress in their lives -- as revealed by their dress, mannerisms, speech and appetite (this is the age when children tend to develop eating disorders). This will give parents an opportunity to later express their concerns with the child privately. Family dinners also promote healthy food and portion choices in addition to increasing social-emotional bonding between members. Ensure that dinner times are pleasant and non-controversial. Even if your teen chooses to remain silent during the meal, make it a point to be observant and open to communication,” adds Dr Shenoy.
8. D for digital detox: Having a family meal together is, of course, a positive development. But it is anything but beneficial if both parent and child spend the entire meal staring at a smartphone or, digital device. Or, sit in front of the television. If you are focused on your smartphone during a family activity such as mealtime, it affects your child negatively, reports a 2017 study in the journal Child Development.The study notes that when parents are distracted by technology, children display more problem behaviour, including tantrums, hyperactivity, whining and over-sensitivity. So, it is vital that you put down your smartphone and, get your children off devices as well. Instead of focusing on work email or Facebook or allowing your child game-time, make dinner the time for face-to-face conversations with your family.
Of course, it may not be possible to have family dinners every night. Then, make this a tradition one night every week. Or ensure that everyone gets together for shared dinners on the weekends. Doing so will make you and your family immensely richer and healthier, in body, mind and soul.
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