Does it seem like your family's meals are always consumed "on the run." Sitting down for a family meal may feel like a luxury you can't afford with your family's busy schedules. Mom, dad, and kids have other commitments or their schedules just aren't in synch to allow for a relaxed family meal.

When I was a kid my dad would get home from teaching high school and we'd have to rush through dinner so that he could go to teach his evening class at a local college. While a more relaxed dinner would have been better, I'm glad we got to eat together. Research shows that families who share four or five meals together each week have kids who eat more fruits and vegetables, have healthier eating habits in general, and are at less risk for obesity.

Eating on the run increases the risk of childhood obesity and developing poor eating habits and may contribute to development of an eating disorder. In my clinical work with bulimic patients I often find that there is a lengthy history of chaotic eating. They may grab a snack or get something out of a vending machine, eat while standing-up, or eat in their car after using the drive-up window of a fast-food restaurant, but often there are few sit-down family meals. 

An additional benefit of having meals together is the opportunity to catch-up with your kids and find out what's going on in their lives. Just make sure that you don't use dinner to lecture your child about poor grades, failure to do chores or other unpleasant topics. Enjoy the meal with your kids. You can discuss problems at another time.

Considering the enormous health and psychological costs of childhood obesity and the opportunity to increase communication with your kids, it would be worthwhile to make the changes necessary to have several family meals each week. Even if it is inconvenient and requires changing schedules or giving up some activities, the benefits will more than compensate for the disruption.

You may feel that it would be pointless to eat together. Many parents have tried to start conversations but complain that their kids don't want to talk. You shouldn't get discouraged if your conversation goes something like this:

Parent: "How was school today?"

Child: "Okay"

Parent: "What did you do in class?"

Child: "Nothing"

Instead, you can start the conversation with an open-ended question. Even you get a perfunctory answer, like "fine" or "okay" or a non-verbal grunt at least your child will know that you are expressing interest. If this is a repeated pattern, you can have a conversation with your spouse about a topic that would be interesting to your child. For example, you could talk about sports, movies, music or even politics. Just make sure that the conversation is positive, not too critical. At some point in the conversation you can casually ask your child what she thinks.    

Start with a goal of establishing a family meal routine for one or two nights a week. Review your family's schedules to see which days have the fewest commitments. Even if there is no perfect solution, distinguish between essential and optional activities. Ask yourself, in light of the health and psychological consequences of childhood obesity and eating disorders, which of your family's current activities is more essential than eating together? When you give it some thought, you'll find that very few activities are more important than promoting healthy eating habits and increasing communication with your children. Bon appétit!

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