ABCs of Growing Healthy Kids: Good Times at Meal Times

This article explains why and offers some tips and advice on how to have a good time at mealtimes.
ABCs of Growing Healthy Kids: Good Times at Meal Times - Articles


Getting everyone together for a meal can seem like an impossible task, but the benefits of eating together make family mealtimes a tradition worth pursuing.

"Please pass the love, unity, and spaghetti."

An unlikely request? Perhaps. But in truth, that's what you give your child when you sit down together at the family table.

This quote from Connie Evers, registered dietitian, in her article "Bringing Back Mealtime" (Healthy KidsMagazine, December '94 /January '95), emphasizes the importance of family mealtimes. Getting everyone together for a meal can seem like an impossible task. But the benefits of eating together make family mealtime a tradition worth pursuing.

Why Eat Together?

  • Nutrition. Studies show most people eat more balanced meals and a wider variety of foods when they eat with family or friends. Shared meals also save money.
  • Tradition. Food served at the family table helps to shape and give lasting meaning to your cultural heritage. Positive food memories created during childhood are cherished for life.
  • Family bond. One strength of emotionally healthy families is spending time together. This includes eating meals together on a routine basis. Family meals offer a chance to communicate, helping to build a stronger bond and commitment to one another.

Making the Most of Family Mealtimes

Just sitting together at the table does not always lead to fascinating family conversations or warm mealtime memories. Here are some ideas for making the most of family mealtimes.

  1. Make family mealtimes a priority.

    Emphasize the importance of mealtime together. If you're like most families, you're caught in a time crunch. Adults and youth all may hold jobs. There are sports, dance lessons, music lessons, homework, a house to clean, clothes to wash, perhaps an older parent or relative to care for, and many other obligations.

    If you're not eating together as a family, make a decision about your family priorities--and consider dropping at least one thing so you can have more time for family meals.
  2. Make mealtimes pleasant.
    Children learn social skills from watching and listening to you. Share positive things that have happened during the day. Postpone negative conversation about behavior until another time. Use some pre-planned questions to enhance family conversation, for example:
    • Tell us something that happened recently making you feel really happy.
    • Someone has given you $1,000. You have to spend some of it on your family before you can buy anything for yourself. What would you buy for everyone?
    • If you could spend an afternoon with a famous person (living or dead), who would you pick?
  3. Serve a variety of healthy foods.
    Use ChooseMyPlate and family preferences as a guide when planning meals. It is the parent's job to offer a variety of foods in a pleasant atmosphere; the child's job is to choose how much and whether or not to eat.
  4. Keep meals simple and easy.
    Save the elaborate menus for when you have time to prepare and enjoy them. Simple foods served with love and laughter will outshine gourmet goodies almost any time.
  5. Eliminate interruptions and distractions.
    Turn off the televisions, radios, computers, and all electronic devices. Use an answering machine or voice mail if it's hard to refrain from responding to a ringing phone while you are eating. It's OK to answer emergency calls, from an ill parent, for example.
  6. Get everyone involved in meals.

    Give each person a task, such as choosing the menu, setting the table, making a salad, or cleaning up. The skills your children learn include teamwork and cooperation.

    Shared meals can be a time to take a deep breath, enjoy each other's company, strengthen relationships, and savor good food.

You can find additional information on ChooseMyPlate for preschoolers.

Originally prepared by Katherine Cason, associate professor of food science. Updated in 2014 by Jill Cox, MS, RD, program development specialist, Penn State Extension Better Kid Care, and Mary Alice Gettings, MS, RD, nutrition consultant, with funding from the Penn State Extension Better Kid Care program.