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The Healthiest Meal for Kids Is the One They Have With You

The key to getting the most out of family dinners is, well, to have more of them.

One of the most important things any dad can do for his kids is to show up for dinner. It really is that simple. Research from the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that the more frequent the family dinners, the higher the positive impact they have. “When clients ask me what the most important aspect of family meals are I answer, ‘Making them happen!’” says pediatric dietitian Melanie Silverman. “These meals provide the structure and sense of community that young children need and crave during their development.”

The benefits are well documented. First, there’s the educational component. Research published in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development found that mealtime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than books. According to the findings, children between the ages of three and five learned some 1,000 rare words at the dinner table compared to the 143 rare words from parents reading storybooks aloud.

Then there’s emotional well-being. In 2014, a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family offered evidence that when family relationships are strong, family meals may contribute to fewer depressive symptoms and less delinquency among adolescents. Other research has shown that children and adolescents who partake in family meals at least three times per week are more likely to have healthier eating patterns than those who experience three or fewer family meals per week.

“The truth is that our weeknights are pretty packed with sports practice, piano lessons, and homework, along with what can seem like the never-ending demands of my job,” says Sun Basket’s executive chef, Justine Kelly. “It’s challenging, but I make a point to have dinner with my daughter every night. Also, one thing we always make time for is Sunday supper at my sister’s house. My parents come and my daughter gets to spend time with her cousins. It’s a highlight of our week.”

Additionally, those teens sharing three or more weekly meals with their family are less likely to engage in disordered eating, are more likely to achieve academic success, have higher self-esteem, and have better relationships with their parents.

“When adults are talking, putting their napkins in their laps, and eating a variety of foods, they are teaching the young children at the table how to be human,” says Silverman. “Meals are a multi-sensory classroom with emotional, physical, and developmental benefits.” The most important part of the puzzle? To simply make family meal-time happen.

Four Steps to Make the Most of a Meal

Being there may be the most important part of family meal-time, but there are still a few things you can do to make the conversation all the more fruitful.

1. Have a ritual.

Answer the same question every evening when you sit down to eat to give your kid something to prepare for and see how the answers shift over time with their changing perspective. A few examples: “What are you thankful for?” or “What were the peak (best part) and pit (worst part) of your day?”

2. Play games.

Challenge your kids and encourage fun and creativity by asking them questions like, “What were the three craziest things you saw today?” or “If you were an animal, which would you want to be and why?”

3. Skip the TV dinner.

Do your best to turn off the TV, put phones away, and negate any distractions that can take away from your time to talk. “Family meals should be pleasant, fun, and technology free to optimize the experience,” Silverman says.

4. Get everyone involved.

This is a time where the whole family chips in to come together. Ask your kids to wash veggies or set the table. “I’m a big fan of teaching children to cook,” Silverman says. “Their own home kitchen is the perfect place to start learning how to prepare healthy meals.” One of the easiest ways to teach them skills in the kitchen is for them to try their hand (with adult supervision) at one of the healthy, ready-to-make meals from Sun Basket.