Set an Example When You Set the Table

The invaluable moments of family meals.

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Whether it's for a birthday, a holiday, or just for no reason at all, we shower our kids with gifts throughout their lives. As our children grow, their closets and dressers see many articles of clothing come and go, but how many of those items will remain indelibly etched in their minds? When making memories, it's not usually the material items that get remembered and re-emerge on a daily basis; it's the life lessons that really penetrate.

The other day, my middle son was about to embark on his first business trip. Right before he left for the airport, he asked, "Could you teach me how to iron?" That question hit me like a ton of bricks. All I could think about was: "My father was a tailor ... how could I have never taught my kids how to iron—or sew, for that matter?" I proceeded to pull out the ironing board that was neatly nestled in the closet and quickly enrolled him in Ironing 101. And it was after his plane took off that I thought about one of the most important lessons I have taught my children: I showed them how to have a wonderful and healthy relationship with food.

[See 5 Great Diets for the Whole Family]

As parents, whether we like it or not, we are teaching lessons every day. Our children observe our moves, our decisions, and our habits, even if no words about these actions are ever spoken.

Although our hectic lives don't always allow us to share a meal or snack, numerous reports have shown that when families grab some table time together, kids tend to eat more vegetables and fruits and have less fried foods and sugared soft drinks. Moreover, family meals may even influence younger children to be less likely to be overweight. Less drug use, alcohol abuse, and cigarette smoking have also been shown among families that share a meal.

[See It's Time to Reclaim Our Kitchens]

But don't let carpools, after-school activities for kids, or your own after-hours work make you feel like bringing the family together over a meal is impossible. Recently, a survey called Welch's Kitchen Table Report found that despite frenzied schedules and increasing demands, American families are making time to eat together and share quality time as a family. Here are some of their uplifting results:

• 71 percent of respondents say their families eat dinner together as often as or more today than their families did when they were children.

• 84 percent of respondents say that one of their favorite parts of the day is when their family eats together.

• 75 percent of respondents say that, in an average week, they eat together four or more nights, and an impressive 34 percent report they eat together seven nights a week, on average.

As a member of Welch's Health & Nutrition Advisory Panel, I helped to contribute to its Family Mealtime Moments Toolkit, where you'll find family-friendly recipes and mealtime tips. For more great info about how to create meals your family will want to sit down to, visit kidseatright.org and eatright.org. Here you'll find recipes, tips and videos to help you peacefully put dinner on the table.

And don't think you have to become America's Top Chef to bring your family together for a meal. Even breaking (whole-grain) bread over a spread that you ordered in can still allow you to share conversations and discuss your day's events. Try to enlist some help in menu planning and food shopping by getting your kids involved in preparation. Perhaps start with a "Top Your Own Pizza" night, and have everyone add their favorite veggies, cheese, and sauce toppings, or turn your kitchen counter into a salad bar and have each person put in a request for toppings.

[See How to Sneak in a Salad]

And most importantly, remember that you set an example each time you set the table. Andrew Carnegie once said, "As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do." Although these words sound sage with regards to aging, the same sentiment rings true for children. Remember that the next time you push away the Brussels Sprouts ... someone could be watching!

[See Rethinking the Kid-Veggie Relationship]

Your own diet is important on many levels—not only does it give your children a guide to follow, but it also gives you the opportunity to stay strong, energized, and healthy so that you can all share many more happy moments together. You won't believe how many memories will come from those family meals.

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.