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Family dinner time serves up healthy habits

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

What’s on the plate isn’t the only measure of the healthfulness of family meals. Who’s at the table, what’s being discussed and the environment play important roles in impacting nutritional status, too. Research shows that kids and teens who eat with their family at least three or four times per week are more likely to consume healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables and get better grades in school. They’re less likely to be overweight.

“Dinner time is the DNA of family dynamics,” said psychologist Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. “We know that families are crunched for time today but the meal doesn’t have to be a long drawn out affair. We found that the average length of time for dinner was between 18 and 20 minutes.”

Of course, not every family meal is an idyllic scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Picky eaters, sibling fights, toddler tantrums and arguing adults can quickly turn the tables. Fiese’s research focuses on identifying family mealtime behaviors and offering solutions to maximize the benefits of dining together. Yup, it’s time to turn off the cell phones, laptops and TV’s. “Be careful of the distractions and especially screen time,” said Fiese.

The secret ingredient in happier family meals is planning ahead with shopping lists, menu planning and getting everyone involved in age appropriate tasks in the kitchen. Teaching children to cook helps time-stressed parents and gives kids skills to last a lifetime. Dinner times may have to adjust with conflicting work, school and activity schedules but Fiese said routines are important to children. “Flexibility is a good thing but avoid eating in random settings and getting in the habit of separate mealtimes.”

Dining out counts

You don’t have to eat at home to teach good nutrition habits. Registered dietitian Liz Weiss co-founder of www.mealmakeovermoms.com said, “Restaurants are a good place to get kids to try something they haven’t tasted before, teach them to slow down, enjoy the food and talk about the flavors. Enjoy a shift in the family conversation.”

Registered dietitian Joy Dubost, senior director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association, said dining out can serve up added benefits. “Family meals at restaurants allow more time to communicate and connect as a family.”

Fiese said, “If the meal is in a restaurant it’s still family meal time around the table. So I’m not sure the magic is just in the home.”