Friday, March 5, 2010

Family meals pay off

Busy parents are sacrificing mealtimes with their families in order to keep up, but this sacrifice comes at too great a cost for children.

MEALTIMES are a special time for you and your young child. It may be the only time of the day when your family comes together. At other times, parents may be occupied with work or household responsibilities, while children are away at school. However busy we all are, we nevertheless need to eat.

Thus, having meals with your family provides an amazing opportunity for you and your spouse to spend time together with your child. Eating together enables you to foster your child’s development, coach, and monitor your child’s behaviour, and enjoy each other’s company.

The benefits of eating together as a family are endless! Skipping this activity will cause your child to lose out on these precious opportunities to develop as a person.

Tested and proven

Family mealtimes have been the subject of considerable scholarly studies. Researchers from various fields, from the field of nutrition to the field of psychology, have conducted extensive research on the outcomes of family mealtimes. Each study has consistently showed that the positive effects of dining together as a family extend far beyond what we assume. Some of these include:

● Better nutrition. Children who eat with their families have lower rates of both malnutrition and obesity compared to children who do not.

Research has shown that a higher frequency of family meals is associated with increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and other essential nutrients, and lower intake of fried food and soft drinks.

Additionally, dining together with parents allows children to observe the positive nutritional habits that their parents adopt, leading children to make healthier food choices when not dining with their parents.

● Enhanced family connectedness. You are more likely to pass on family values and traditions to your child during regular mealtimes. In fact, the social relationships developed while sharing a meal will reinforce your child’s sense of belonging to the family. This helps build a strong, healthy, and resilient family unit.

● Better social and communication skills. Eating with adults allows your child to observe the behaviour of others in a social setting and to practice social skills. Participation in table conversations also enables him to acquire a wider vocabulary and acquire general knowledge. In fact, it has been suggested that it is these skills that enable children who have frequent family meals to, reportedly, perform much better in school.

● Protection against risk behaviours. The US Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found in their 10-year study that teens who have frequent family meals are less likely to smoke, drink, and use drugs. This isn’t surprising, as the level of family and adult support that is built from having family meals serves as a great buffer against such risk-taking behaviours.

As a parent, you can shape the culture of the home. So make it a point to have regular family mealtimes. Encourage every member of the family to sit together at the dinner table. Research shows that while the numbers of families who have meals together remain high at 80%, that number in bigger cities is dropping quickly.

The quality factor

Realise this; Just because the whole family is eating together does not mean that you are eating right. Getting the family together is just half the battle. How you conduct these family dinners are just as important.

You may be sitting together, but if everyone is silent, you and your family are no better off than if you were all doing your own thing. Quality is the key. Make family meals count instead of treating them as something you feel obligated to do because experts recommend you do so.

Here are some tips on how you can make your family meals worth the time and effort:

1. Don’t rush them.

Treasure each moment that your family spends together at the table. There is no point in making all the effort to sit down with your family, only to have it fly by. Allow ample time to enjoy the food and each other’s company. Avoid the temptation of rushing your child through the meal, as long as they finish their food within a reasonable duration.

2. Resist distractions.

While mobile phones, television, video games, and the radio are a great source of entertainment, turn them off at mealtimes and do not allow them anywhere near the dining area. They are not members of your family. If possible delay answering your hand-phones for the duration of the meal. Instead, switch your attention to your child and other family members.

3. Keep conversations pleasant.

Aim at having happy and relaxing conversations during mealtimes. Ensure that you include everyone in all conversations. This is a great opportunity for your family to share their experiences and understand each other a little more.

Avoid bringing up unpleasant subjects or meting out punishments during mealtimes, as you do not want your family to associate negative feelings with eating together.

4. Share the responsibility.

Mealtimes do not have to start and stop at the dinner table. In fact, include aspects like food preparation and table setting as part of your mealtime routine and involve your child in the process. Let him contribute menu ideas, bring him grocery shopping, and have him set the table. Your child will feel proud and excited to eat meals that he has helped prepare.

Braving the traffic congestion to get home at peak hours for a family dinner may seem like a hassle. Passing up the chance to go for a drink with your colleagues in exchange for a quiet dinner at home may also irritate you. But keep in mind these small sacrifices that you make now are all well spent. You’ll find that in a few years time, you and your child will reap the rewards from your efforts.

■ Dr Goh Chee Leong is a psychologist. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting Programme. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

Credits to Lew Hui Teng, T3

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