We’ve all experienced it. Scarfing down dinner as we drive the kids to soccer practice. Eating spaghetti while SpongeBob blares in the background. Having a perfectly good meal turn into a bargaining session (“If you eat two more bites of broccoli, then you can leave the table…”).
Eating dinner as a family is hard. But it is one of the most important things we can do not only to help kids develop strong bodies, but to develop strong brains.
Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, and develop healthy eating habits and manners.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Family meals even improve literacy. A study from the Harvard School of Education examined children’s use of 2000 words that are good markers of literacy. Of the 2000 words they were looking for, 143 came from parents reading to their kids, but more than 1000 were learned at the dinner table.
This doesn’t mean we should stop reading to our kids. But it does highlight the importance of a family meal.
Need more convincing? Here are three specific ways family dinners help our kids develop stronger brains.
1. Manners: Let’s face it, no one likes an unruly kid who talks with his mouth full. Family dinners are ripe with opportunities for learning manners. Waiting for everyone to sit before eating, complimenting the cook, setting and clearing the table, asking to be excused, not interrupting, using the proper utensils, not talking with a full mouth – the list goes on and on. When we create these expectations consistently through family dinner we create neural networks in our brains. Each time a child is reminded to say “please” before saying “pass the salt” the remember to say please neural pathway is strengthened. The more that pathway is used, the stronger it becomes, soon the brain creates a habit of saying please, asking to be excused, exercising patience and many of the pro-social behaviors we want our kids to develop.
2. Connecting as a family: We are busy. In today’s world we have very little time to truly engage with the people we care about most. Family dinners are an ideal opportunity to connect with our kids. If you need help getting your kids to engage, check out the ideas below, such as “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” In our culture kids have few opportunities to establish meaningful connections through face-to-face interactions – key in the development of empathy. The family dinner is ripe with these opportunities, helping parents raise kind, compassionate and socially well-adjusted kids.
3. Highlighting the importance of family ritual: A ritual illustrates our values. When we make dinner a family ritual, it sends our kids the message that family is important to us. A regular family dinner provides a sense of comfort and security for children, helps them manage stress, and gives structure in a busy and chaotic world.
If family dinners are difficult to schedule because one parent works late or an older child is busy with activities, try to pick at least one night a week when the family dinner is sacred. On that night make it a big deal: use fancy plates and napkins, and plan to sit for a while, armed with activities and conversation starters to keep everyone interested.
If you work late and the kids need to eat before you get home, sit with them and have a healthy snack before bed. The act of engagement around the dinner table, even if not everyone is eating, creates a sense of harmony for a family on the run. This allows kids to have a settling experience, activating the prefrontal cortex of their brain at a time of day, between activities and homework, where the engagement of the prefrontal cortex is crucial. Without it, for instance allowing kids to scarf down their food in front of the tv, keeps them in a constant state of fight or flight, which does not set up well for a peaceful night sleep.
To make family dinners fun, give the following activities a try:
1. A Moment of Silence: We often come to the table with our minds racing from a busy day. That’s why it’s a good idea to begin the meal with a minute or two of silence. It doesn’t matter what you think about: simply noticing your breath calms the stress response in the brain. Giving yourself and your kids a moment to just be is helpful.
2. Rose, Bud, Thorn: This game is a favorite among all kids, even older ones. Take turns sharing your Rose (the best part of your day), your Thorn (the worst part of your day) and your Bud (what you are looking forward to tomorrow). Try it once and your kids will ask for it at every meal.
3. Conversation Starters: Conversation starters can resolve those problematic one-words answers to the question “How was your day?” One option is the Mindful Life Meal Wheel. Family members take turns spinning the wheel and answering questions that help them process mistakes, practice mindfulness, express appreciation and more.
4. Practice Gratitude: Decorate an old pickle jar and leave it on the dinner table with pieces of scratch paper and a pencil. Allow kids to write things they are grateful for on the scratch paper and place them in the jar throughout the week. Once a week take turns pulling the papers out of the jar and reading what everyone has written. Studies show people that practicing gratitude increases happiness, kindness, and sense of well-being. Kids who practice gratitude get better grades, are more socially integrated and show fewer signs of depression. It is a simple practice with profound benefits for the entire family!
With the incredible benefits of eating together, it’s worth it to prioritize family meals. Give it a try: you just might find your kids polishing off their broccoli and sharing the details of their days. And even better, you’ll know you’re helping your kids grow into happy, healthy, and mindful adults.
Kristen Race, Ph.D. is a parent of two young children, as well as an expert in child, family and school psychology. Dr. Race is a regular blogger with Psychology Today and the founder of Mindful Life, which provides brain-based solutions for today’s families as they try to manage the stresses of modern day parenting. All of her services are rooted in the science of the brain with influences from the fields of mindfulness and positive psychology, designed to improve brain function and brain development in adults and children. She is the author of MINDFUL PARENTING: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World (St. Martin's Griffin, Jan. 2014). Visit her website, www.mindfullifetoday.com to learn more.