Thanksgiving is one of the most highly anticipated holidays of the year. We love it because we are all gathered around a table together. The food is prepared with care. We enjoy each other's company. The same things that make Thanksgiving special are great for kids and their development. Studies show that children who gather with their family around a table for mealtimes are healthier; less likely to smoke, use drugs, and try sex at an early age; and perform better in school. By applying some of the same traditions we use on Thanksgiving to our everyday lives, we can greatly improve our children's chances of success in school and in life.
But how does eating as a family make such a big impact? As it turns out, meal times are an excellent time for practicing a wide range of very important skills.
Fine Motor Skills
Young children are squirmy and very messy. It is tempting to provide finger foods and let children roam or watch television while they eat, but children who eat at a table using a plate, an open-topped cup, and a fork or spoon are practicing many types of important fine motor skills. Scooping, dipping, and pouring prepares kids to eat a wide variety of healthy foods and even cook for themselves eventually. It's the beginning of a lifetime of healthy eating.
We all know that the strength of our relationships makes a big impact on our quality of life. Relationships are based on good listening, sharing, empathy, and respect. Kids making conversation at the family table build these valuable skills. As parents make conversation with their kids, they model how to show affection and concern for each other, how to tell the story of something that happened during the day, how to listen and be respectful while others are speaking, and how to use proper table manners. These are the same skills that your child will use to work out emotional feelings and forge bonds with the important people in their lives.
For very young children, the dinner table is a hands-on learning environment and the best place to learn the words for colors, textures, temperatures, and tastes. Talking about the food, the plates, the napkins (anything!) builds your child's vocabulary. And as children get older, you can discuss more complex issues that will give your child a real advantage in school. The words they hear will drift into their normal vocabulary effortlessly. They will gain improved comprehension and communication skills.
Perhaps most important thing families gain by eating together is a sense of unity. Through discussions about events in the community or in the news, kids learn how their parents feel about potentially dangerous situations and the parents' expectations regarding the best course of action. They also learn that their parents really care about their thoughts and ideas and will be there for them if they have a problem. For these reasons, spending time around a table makes it less likely for kids to behave or isolate themselves in ways that are dangerous.
Now that you are convinced, what do you do next? Get a table if you don't have one already. (It doesn’t have to be fancy. Even a $30 second-hand table would work perfectly.) Put it nearby the kitchen, and keep it clear of papers and other objects. This will make it more likely for you to use it for eating together. Though that is not the only thing kitchen and dining room tables are good for; they are also great places to do homework or other fun projects while dinner is cooking.
Your responsibility as a parent is to buy, prepare, and offer healthy foods. (If you do not have access to healthy food, call 2-1-1 for a directory of government-sponsored programs and local charities working to improve families’ access to healthy foods.) Aim to represent the basic food groups. Try offering one or two things you know your children like and a few things they have not eaten readily in the past. Then, let your child choose what—from among the healthy options you've provided—to eat and how much. If your kid doesn't want to try or doesn’t like the new food, don't sweat it. Direct them to leave it on their plate. Keep serving it, maybe in slightly different ways. Your child will likely try it and may even like it eventually.
Then just talk about your day. Ask your kids about what they did at childcare or at school. Set an example by trying new foods and using good table manners. Before long, eating dinner as a family will become an easy routine and one you and your child really look forward to, just like Thanksgiving.
Sharen Hansen, MS, Ed., is clinical coordinator for Children’s Integrated Services, Early Intervention for Southern Vermont. CIS/Early Intervention offers a playgroup from 10:30 a.m. – noon Mondays at the Bennington Free Library. For more articles like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.