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18 Minutes Can Make All the Difference. Here's Why.

18 Minutes Can Make All the Difference. Here's Why.

Dietitian Dialogues

March 26, 2015

by Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD

What's on the plate isn't the only measure of the healthfulness of family meals. Who's sitting at the table, what's being discussed and the surrounding environment play important roles in impacting nutritional status, too. Research shows that kids and teens who eat with their family at least three or four times per week are more likely to consume healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, and they get better grades in school. They're less likely to be overweight and less likely to develop an eating disorder.

"Dinner time is the DNA of family dynamics," says psychologist Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says, "We know that families are crunched for time today but the meal doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out affair. We found that the average length of time for dinner was between 18 and 20 minutes."

Of course, not every family meal is an idyllic scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Picky eaters, sibling fights, toddler tantrums and arguing adults can quickly turn the tables. Fiese's research focuses on identifying family mealtime behaviors and offering solutions to maximize the benefits of dining together. That's right – it's time to turn off the cell phones, laptops and TV's. 

"Be careful of the distractions and especially screen time," says Fiese.

The secret ingredient in happier family meals is planning ahead with shopping lists, menu planning and getting everyone involved in age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen. Teaching children to cook helps time-stressed parents and gives them skills to use for a lifetime. Dinner times may have to adjust with conflicting work, school and activity schedules, but Fiese says routines are important to children. 

"Flexibility is a good thing, but avoid eating in random settings and getting in the habit of separate mealtimes," she says.

Dining Out Counts

You don't have to be at home to share in the benefits. Registered dietitian Liz Weiss of the family nutrition website MealMakeOverMoms.com says eating out offers unique teachable moments for healthy behaviors. 

"Restaurants are a good place to get kids to try something they haven't tasted before, even if it's just a bite from a parent's plate. Teach them to slow down, enjoy the food, talk about the flavors, and enjoy the shift in the family conversation," says Weiss.

Registered dietitian Joy Dubost, senior director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association, says dining out may even have added benefits. 

"Family meals at restaurants allow more time to communicate and connect as a family," she says. 

Fiese adds, "If the meal is in a restaurant, it's still family meal time around the table. So I'm not sure the magic is just in the home."

The National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program helps parents find eateries that provide healthier meals for children.

Foodie Footnote: The recently-released scientific report from the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (a group of prestigious health and nutriiton experts) includes a recommendation to increase the frequency of family-shared meals.

Nutrition expert, award winning food journalist and television personality Carolyn O’Neil has a master’s degree in Nutrition with a specialization in Communication from Boston University. Carolyn is a nutrition advisor to BestFoodFacts.org, which answers consumers’ questions on food, nutrition, cuisine and agriculture by tapping into a network of 150 university-based experts to find the best food facts. Her CNN reporting on food and health earned three James Beard Foundation Awards.