Back to School—and Back to the Table

How to foster the family meal

By SHARE

I've read and written many back-to-school stories: on the importance of not skipping breakfast, the skill of packing a lunch that won't get thrown away, and the need for incorporating high-energy snacks between meals.

But this story is about eating together as a family, at the table. It doesn't matter if the "table" is at home or at a restaurant; nor does it matter if the meal is breakfast, lunch, or dinner. What matters is having that family meal. When you share a meal, you're more likely to share a conversation, share a feeling, or share a memory. Studies have shown that families who eat together generally have healthier diets—richer in fruits and veggies but lighter on fried foods and fat—than families who don't. Regular family meals have also been associated with higher grades and lower rates of substance abuse and depression in children.

So how can your table become a magnet for family members? These tips may entice them:

• Keep a pen and a blank piece of paper labeled "shopping list" on the counter. Your kids are more likely to eat the foods they request than the ones you choose for them. Even simpler: Type up a list of your family's favorites so that everyone can just circle their desired items.

• Take your kids to the supermarket. When they are young, you can play food games with them, such as choosing food by color or shape. As they get older, you can teach them how to read food labels, an invaluable skill.

• Encourage your kids to get down and dirty in the cooking process. It's exciting for them to eat food they prepared themselves. If you have several children, cook with each of them individually to impart cooking skills and knowledge about healthy eating.

• Have a family cook-off where each member is challenged to come up with something delicious and healthy using only a limited number of ingredients. Award prizes for the most creative, most colorful, and most interesting dishes.

• Assign designated nights where each child can choose the appetizer, main dish, side dish, or dessert. That way, each person feels like he has contributed to the meal. You may want to provide the options, though, so you don't end up feeling like a short-order chef.

• Be spontaneous. If the weather is nice, eat in the backyard. Mix things up and have breakfast for dinner. Heck, maybe even eat on pillows on the living room floor. All that matters is eating together, as a family.

• Aside from healthy food, the most important item on the menu is good conversation. Start a fun dialogue or play games at the table to keep mealtime lighthearted. This is also a great opportunity to share the day's events or what you're all thankful for.

A great responsibility rests on parents' shoulders because children mimic their parents' behavior. It still brings me great joy to have cooking parties with my grown kids and to watch them make wise choices when they stock their own pantries and refrigerators. A parent's chief goal should be to raise a child that is healthy—both physically and emotionally. A healthy diet is a great way to forge that path.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.