Submitted by Brandy E. Brabham
WVU Extension Agent
Roane & Calhoun Counties

Is family mealtime on your menu for developing—or strengthening—bonds within your family? Research says you should keep that meal plan because family meals nurture more than children's bodies.

Families and health educators with West Virginia University Extension Service report that children who eat dinner with their families are more likely to have higher test scores.

The good news about family mealtime gets even better. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention underscores the importance of family meals with these statistics:

Children who eat meals with their families are 61 percent less likely to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.

Teens who eat regularly with their families are less likely to have sex at a younger age and to get into fights at school.

Teens who eat regularly with their families have lower risk for thoughts of suicide.

Children who eat dinner with their families learn to handle stress in a more positive fashion.

The Kansas State University Research and Extension Service points to research that endorses family meals for a more traditional reason:

24 percent of children who eat with their families get the recommended five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables. The Kansas researchers found that only 13 percent of children who do not eat regularly with their families get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, research also shows that today's fast-paced society has drawn families away from the dinner table. The Strengthening Families Team at WVU Extension Service suggests introducing regular family meals as a good way to start conversations in your household.

Begin by making family mealtime a priority.

How can you get the most out of your family mealtime conversations? Here are some tips that can help you make family meals become great conversation starters:

Turn off the TV and radio. Laughter is the best dinnertime tune.

Unplug the phone or put on the answering machine. Don't let interruptions spoil this special time.

Move family mealtime to different times. Family meals don't have to be evening events. They also can be weekday or weekend breakfasts or lunches.

Start chatting earlier; stop later. Family discussions need not begin and end while you are seated at the dinner table. Family members, including even young children, may begin communicating while helping to prepare the meal and setting the table. Mealtime conversations may continue as the family clears the table and does the dishes.

Keep it light. Unpleasant topics, negative criticism, and judgmental comments are not appropriate for mealtime conversation. The family meal should be a relaxing, enjoyable occasion for everyone.

Always involve your kids in the mealtime conversation. Their participation will not only make them feel more respected, it will also expose them to new language and ideas. The art of conversation—including learning how to take turns speaking—is an important social skill for daily life.

Ask children for specific details that may spark conservation. For example, ask "How many nibbles did you get on your line when you and Dad went fishing Saturday?" That question is more likely to generate conversation just asking "How was your day today?"

Don't feel guilty if family meals are not a daily event. Start with what's possible at the moment, naturally transitioning toward eating together several times per week.

Change the family meal location. How about an afternoon picnic, dinner under the stars, or Saturday breakfast in your child's room?

Ultimately, WVU Extension educators say, conversations around the dinner table can help you understand your children. They will also give your children a chance to learn more about you. Together, you will open the lines of communication that are so vital to the well-being of your family.

Want to speak to someone locally about introducing family meal conversation or preparing healthy meals? Contact Calhoun County WVU Extension Service, by calling 354-6332. The Calhoun County office of the WVU Extension Service is located in the basement of the Calhoun County Courthouse in Grantsville.

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