Friday, October 9, 2015

Why Mealtime with Your Teen Matters

This is an article I had in a parenting magazine a while back. I quoted some of you in this article :)  

What is the evening meal like at your house? Is there a mad rush to be done and off to different activities? Does everyone microwave his or her own food at different times and eat separately? Do you sit down together to eat and share daily events?

     When your children were little, you probably made sure that everyone ate together. You realized that this was important for your youngsters. You knew your little ones would eat more nutritiously, learn table manners, take turns talking, improve their vocabulary by listening to others and keep in touch with other family members.
     As your children grew older, soccer practice, piano lessons, cheerleading practice, marching band, sports competitions, and part time jobs were added to the schedule. You may find there are activities every night of the week that interfere with being together at dinnertime.

     Family mealtime may not seem so important now that your children are teens. After all, they know how to talk, and they've learned their manners and all the other things that were so important when they were young. However, it is still important to have that family connection.
Hindrances to Family Meals
     Teens have activities to do and friends to hang out with. Many teens have part time jobs that take them away from home during the late afternoon and evening hours.
     "As our children have gotten older and all of our schedules have gotten busier, finding time to sit down together for a family dinner occurs less often. Someone is usually at a sports practice, voice lesson or working overtime. We usually have dinner with everyone together only 2-4 times a week On other days, it's usually still a sit-down meal, but there are less of us there to enjoy it," says Teresa Cleary, mother of two teens still at home.

     This is pretty typical for the family with teens. Some days family members may be missing. Or, it may be that everyone eats at a separate time, fixing or heating up his or her own food.
     While parents list conflicting schedules as the biggest hindrance to eating together, some teens avoid the family meal out of a desire for autonomy, a dislike of the foods served or to avoid conflicts within the family. These are situations that need to be fixed before a successful mealtime can take place.
   The Importance of Family Meals for Teens
     Eating together has a lot of important benefits according to several recent studies. Teens who eat with their families have better mental health overall. They are less likely use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs, have sex, get into trouble at school, and are at lower risk for suicide.
     Part of the reason may be that families who are more connected in the first place are those most likely to make family meals a priority. They are the parents who value together time and who know where their children are at if they aren't at home. But the family meal still remains a primary factor in influencing children. The more times a family is able to eat together during the week, the greater the feeling of being cared for and being part of a unit. A teen who regularly talks with his parents is more likely to seek them out when confronted with problems or facing conflicting values.

     "Routine and tradition help children feel secure," says Catherine Yoder, mother of children ages 17, 14, 14, 12 and 6. "It is a time to share news, teach manners and spend time together. Mealtimes are our most regular time together."
     The Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) team at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health has done extensive research into the benefits of family meals. They have found that besides the feelings of connectedness which family meals promote, they also promote positive dietary intake. Research showed teens that ate frequently with the family had higher fruit, vegetable and calcium intake than their peers who prepared their own meals or ate alone. There was also significantly less soda consumed. These teens had less unhealthy weight gain and fewer eating disorders.
 Accomplishing the Family Meal
    "I used to think life was busy when my children were little…I was wrong," says Teresa Clearly. "As they grow up, they have their own commitments that have to fit into the family schedule of events. There are always choices about what has to go and what gets to stay. The decisions are never easy and compromise is the order of the day."
     Many families are frustrated when hectic lifestyles prevent family meals. Eating together every night is probably an unrealistic goal. Striving for it and missing leads to feelings of failure or guilt. A more realistic goal would be to spend at least 30 minutes together at a meal 4 to 5 times a week.  This amount of time still provides the benefits of family connectedness, improved nutrition and keeping up to date on each others lives. It's also 4 or 5 times when you know where everyone in your family is at.
     If it's hard to make time for this, stop and look at schedules. Are family members trying to do too much? Are there some activities that can be dropped to allow more free time? If your teen is on the go every evening, his stress level may be higher than you realize. Taking time out to be together can provide a buffer for his busy life.

     " It was difficult to work around the schedules at times, but the weekends
seemed the easiest days to be together," says Leesa Chick, mother of two grown children. "Sunday was a sacred day so we either went out as a family or I cooked and we ate together. When the girls started dating, their boyfriends would come and seemed to enjoy it too. Several of the boyfriends did not eat with their families so were particularly happy to join in. It helped that the girls enjoyed the time as did their friends."
     Simply sitting at a table together doesn't mean that the food is nutritious or the time together is positive. Those things have to be worked at. Let everyone help plan the weekly menu. Challenge them to find ways to get in enough servings of vegetables. Set guidelines for mealtime conversation such as a "no knock" policy where no one can say anything critical about anyone else. Avoid dealing with individual problems.
     "Communicating with one another is what we did most at our
meals," says Leesa Chick. "You find out more about your children when you are sitting down eating than at any other time. Their guard seems to be down and if they feel like they can talk without judgment then they will."
     Teresa Cleary agrees, "We go over everyone's day and let everyone know about upcoming events. The most important part is the conversation and connection time."
     You might need to eat early before your teen leaves for his part time job. Perhaps you will eat later after the soccer game. Maybe breakfast is the best time for your family to be together. The important thing is being together, communicating, sharing values and being an important part of each other's lives

Strategies for Family Mealtime:
·        Make family meals a priority.
·        Involve teens in buying and preparing the food.
·        Keep meals simple and nutritious--work fruits, vegetables, grains and calcium into the meals.
·        Have a positive, fun atmosphere.
·        Avoid conflicts.

Topics for family discussion:
·        The best part of everyone's day.
·        Plans for summer vacation.
·        How to celebrate birthdays this year.
·        A movie everyone has seen.
·        Current events.
·        Values- "How do you feel about…"

Do  you have a mealtime strategy that works? Share it in the comment section. Do you have mealtime challenges? Share those too!

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