How do you spend “family time?" And I’m not talking about silently sitting on the couch watching TV together in the evenings. Between your spouse’s military career, your kids’ school and extracurricular schedule, the pets running all over the place, and your personal career and/or hobbies, it can be hard to find time to reconnect each day as a family.
As a military brat, I grew up very close to my family. We went through a lot together. Looking back, what really stuck with me throughout those years was the importance of our family dinners. Often it would involve everyone in the kitchen to help prepare the meal, eating and conversing together, and sharing the clean-up duties. Maybe that sounds a little idealistic or cliché. But looking back, it was honestly the glue that helped hold our family together throughout all the military-related stresses as well as personal issues.
Family dinnertime did have some rules, though:
1. They must occur every evening unless we had a parent-approved excuse. With soccer or basketball practices, we just tried to schedule dinners a little earlier or later than usual.
2. No toys or games at the table, and the TV had to be off unless it was a special occasion. (Nowadays I suppose you’d also want to ban cellphones!)
3. At least try a few bites of everything on your plate, eat your salad, and drink all your milk.
Scheduling family dinners most nights of the week helped our family in many ways. Among the benefits: it boosted communication between us, helped us through tough times (military-related and otherwise), and taught us healthy eating habits.
It’s true that as military families, we value convenience, savings, and time (although I think most people agree with that, military or not). Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “I’m already stretched so thin! I don’t have time for this! Swinging by the drive-through is way easier!" If so, please reconsider. Eating is one of the most important things we do (heck, we’d die without it!) and it deserves attention. But it’s so much more than just making time to eat right. Here are a few reasons why:
The Benefits are Backed by Research. Even though it may seem like a hassle to plan family meals, numerous research studies have shown their benefits, even if it’s not every single night. Reports from Washington State University and North Dakota State University discuss how children experiencing family meals did better in school, were better adjusted (SO important for military kids!), and ate healthier. Also, these families shared a stronger sense of communication compared to families who ate together less frequently.
It's an Opportunity for Kids to Learn. Preparing dinner can be a great time to teach your kids basic cooking skills and teamwork, have fun, and get picky eaters to try new things. Have them help choose what’s for dinner, so they’ll actually eat it! Both the KidsHealth and MyPlate websites have some great tips on involving kids in the kitchen. It sure did help me. My mom always made sure we prepared healthy, low-fat, vegetable-rich meals; by the time I left the house I had the knowledge and skills to cook more than just microwave noodles. I credit her for sparking my interest in nutrition!
You're Building a Stronger Family. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by music, TV, computers, and cell phones, take 45 minutes to shut everything off and focus on each other. Discuss what you each did that day, even if it seems boring or silly. This is also an opportunity to address topics such as your child being the “new kid”, bullying, and more. When other serious issues such as the next PCS or a deployment come around, it’ll be easier on everyone when you have a consistent time and place to comfortably discuss things, as a family. Personally, family dinners helped my family stick together as a cohesive unit through thick and thin. It became a tradition that reminded us of how much we care about each other. And when the military sent my dad away, sometimes we’d even put a framed photo of him in his spot – maybe that sounds silly, but hey, it wouldn't be family dinner without him!
Don't forget that what you eat at these dinners, and HOW you eat it, is important. I advise that you don’t force kids to “clean their plate," a practice that may lead to disordered eating in the future. Do encourage them to try everything but stop when they are full. This is where their involvement in planning the menu and helping to cook comes in handy. Furthermore, as a parent, don’t forget to model good behavior by eating your veggies, too!
Information on planning healthy menus and serving sizes can be found on the USDA MyPlate (formerly MyPyramid) website. AllRecipes has some great recipes that are family-friendly. Additionally, for ideas on conversation starters, mealtime tips, and more, browse through The Power of Family Meals website.
I can't wait to pass on this important tradition when my husband and I eventually have kids.
Do you partake in family meals? What do they mean to your family?