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  1. Health

Family mealtime: The importance of how we eat, not just what we eat

Hayden Powell, 7, smells cilantro that his mother, Gina, is holding during the Ben’s Beginners Cooking Contest at Datz last month in Tampa. The event taught families how to cook together and brought a nutritionist in to speak.
Hayden Powell, 7, smells cilantro that his mother, Gina, is holding during the Ben’s Beginners Cooking Contest at Datz last month in Tampa. The event taught families how to cook together and brought a nutritionist in to speak.
Published Sep. 18, 2014

If there was one simple thing you could do to improve your family's health, boost your kids' grades and fend off teen substance abuse, pregnancy and eating disorders, would you do it?

According to a 2013 Gallup poll about half of American families with children under age 18 already do this simple but not always easy thing.

But more children could benefit if all families came together for a meal on most days of the week, experts say.

Depending on which study you look at, and there are many, regular family meals together can have a particularly powerful impact on the physical and emotional health of kids and teens.

Family meals — at a table, away from TV and other electronic distractions — can also help build vocabulary and conversation skills, teach table and social manners, and instill virtues such as sharing, waiting your turn, listening, and taking an interest in others. Children whose families dine together display a greater sense of safety and belonging.

Involving them in the preparation process teaches them about cooking, nutrition, shopping, money management, planning, sharing and delegating tasks, and that their contributions matter to the family.

All that from sitting down for a few minutes together most days of the week to share a meal, however humble it may be.

"Research shows there are a lot of benefits to eating together," said Brenda Curtwright, an instructor at the USF Health Silver Child Development Center. "But there are other factors at play, too."

The higher the education, household income and communication skills of the parents, the more likely children are to stay out of trouble, grow up healthy and develop useful life skills. It's also an advantage to live in a two-parent household where both parents are present for most of those meals, said Curtwright, who teaches parents, students and medical residents about communication skills that help children succeed socially and academically.

"But the research is very clear on one thing," she added. "Regardless of the parent's income and education, children in families that regularly have meals together have less depression and higher self-esteem."

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, CASAColumbia, has been studying the impact of family meals for years and has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents as part of its ongoing research on teen substance abuse. Its 2012 report, "The Importance of Family Dinners VIII,'' found that teens who have at least five family dinners a week were more likely to have strong relationships with their parents and less likely to use drugs, drink or smoke compared to teens who infrequently have family meals.

"If I could wave a magic wand, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week,'' said CASAColumbia's founder and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano Jr.,

• • •

Gathering the clan regularly for dinner isn't easy, as Monika Alesnik can tell you. Alesnik and her husband have two daughters with loads of homework and after-school activities.

On top of all that, Alesnik works full time as associate director of the USF Diabetes Center and goes to school two nights a week working toward her Ph.D. Still, her family manages to gather around the table for dinner about five nights a week.

"It's the most important time we have as a family," said Alesnik, "Our best conversations are at the table."

Alesnik and daughters Morgan Alesnik, 11, and Julia Martin, 10, recently attended a family cooking workshop at Tampa's Datz Gastropub.

Given ingredients to assemble a rice-based, Mexican-themed casserole, they were challenged to make a home video of their family cooking together. They're waiting to hear whether they win the grand prize of $15,000, plus school kitchen makeover in the national contest, sponsored by Uncle Ben's.

Alesnik looks for opportunities to spend time with the girls, both of whom love to cook, even if it means missing an occasional day of school.

"Everything we learn, we don't learn in the classroom," she said.

• • •

To get the benefits of family meals, mealtime should foster positive communication.

While correcting behavior and bad manners may be unavoidable, generally try to avoid criticism or cynical remarks. Family meals are not the time to harp on your son's latest odd haircut.

Parents should encourage children to talk about their day, their friends, their relationships, what they'd like to do, how they are feeling. Current events might be good fodder for some families, but others may want to stick with lighter fare. Adults should also be ready to keep one person from dominating the conversation.

Above all, don't get hung up on rules. Go with what's right for your family.

Debbie Kelly of Sarasota works part time and attended the Datz family cooking event with her two children, Katie, 12, and Jack, 11. She considers family meals an important goal, but is flexible.

"Sometimes it's late and sometimes it's early,'' said Kelly, 49. "Sometimes we eat out. But we really try to make it together."

• • •

Creativity and advance planning can help get family members in the seats and more meals on the table, Curtwright said.

The ideal might be to prepare meals everyone likes. But given that this often isn't possible, it's better to go with Plan B than to give up.

"Maybe it's a can of soup or a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter sandwich," said Curtwright. "Something simple that they can possibly prepare themselves and which isn't cake or cookies."

Don't let perfection sabotage you. Yes, whole, unprocessed foods are best, but don't feel badly about using prepared foods if the alternative is skipping the family meal.

When you do have time to cook, try to make extra and freeze it.

Curtwright suggests you start by gathering for one meal a week — breakfast and lunch count, too — and try building up your family meals from there.

Focus on providing the best nutrition you can afford, but remember it doesn't have to be elaborate and the meal doesn't have to last long. If all you have is 15 or 20 minutes, that's a great start. Be sure everyone gets to say something and pledge to do it again soon.

"It's easy to give up or give in,'' Curtwright said. "But stick to your decision and find ways to make it work.''

Contact Irene Maher at imaher@tampabay.com.