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Family meal times offer many benefits
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Families enjoy gathering for large holiday meals, but they do not need many people, large quantities of food or even a big occasion to make a meal time special.
If the laughter and conversation around the Thanksgiving table were worth savoring, families should realize that they have opportunities at every meal for creating good memories. These meals do not have to be elaborate, and they can be special if only two people are present. When adults eat with children, they should model good eating behaviors so that children see and develop healthy habits.
"The two greatest obstacles to eating family meals are the lack of time and the lack of discipline," said Debbie Abbott, dietetic intern at Mississippi State University. "If we do find the time to sit down together for a family meal, then the pressure is on the adults to eat a variety of healthy foods and in healthy amounts as good examples for the children."
Abbott said food is a basic human need, but family meals can meet other important psychological and emotional needs.
"We spend a lot of time eating on the run and in separate rooms in front of television sets, but eating together at the table is healthier and more nourishing in the long run," Abbott said. "The time preparing a meal can add to the family time together, especially on weekends when time is more flexible. Thankfully, meal preparation does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. It can even be educational for young children learning about measuring, or for older children who just need to learn how to cook."
Rebecca Kelly, human nutrition specialist with MSU's Extension Service, said family meals can be simple and still be healthy. A pizza or sandwich can be eaten with a side salad or fresh vegetables and milk.
"Grocery stores are making family meals even easier by selling baked chicken and other precooked items so all consumers have to do is take them home and serve them," Kelly said. "Additional side items can be added at home."
Parents should model a willingness to eat many different foods and good portion control. Rather than avoiding a dish completely, they should get at least a small amount and set a good example.
"It is tempting to rule out certain foods forever because you tried them once and didn't like them, but tastes can change and different cooking methods can improve a food from one time to the next," Kelly said. "At the same time, no one should overindulge on a favorite food, but practice portion control and save some for leftovers."
Even the simplest meals can provide physical and psychological nourishment when shared with one or more family members.
Louise Davis, family and child development specialist with MSU's Extension Service, said some of the most intimate conversations take place when there are only two people sharing a table.
"Just because other family members are not available, sitting together at the table opens doors to conversations that would not open if families choose to eat in front of the television or in separate rooms," Davis said. "Even when there has been stress in relationships, meals tend to help soothe hurt feelings and help people refocus on common ground instead of differences."
Davis encouraged families to talk about their activities of the day, plans for the future (far and near) or any concerns they may have. It may help to ask open ended questions that begin with what, why or how. If a lull in the conversation occurs, people could consider unusual subjects for discussion, possibly dreams or fears.
"Topics don't have to be deep or revealing, they just need to offer a chance for families to hear one another's thoughts," Davis said. "Listening and talking to each other are two of the greatest gifts we can give family and friends. Meal time is a perfect opportunity for communication."