Eating together every day is optimal, but experts like Rockett and Neumark-Sztainer believe that even just four family meals a week is a worthwhile goal. (Four is the cutoff point in studies that predicted better outcomes, according to Neumark-Sztainer.) Although our modern lives may seem to be busier than ever, scheduling time for togetherness at the table pays dividends. “The biggest obstacle to family meals is that parents don’t realize how much they matter,” says Satter. “Family meals aren’t just about food, they’re about family.”
Table tactic: Avoid food fights.
At mealtime, maintain a clear division of responsibilities. “Adults are responsible for providing healthful food on a regular schedule, while the kids’ job is to decide to eat it or not,” Blatner says. Keep in mind that good nutrition happens over a matter of days, not in the course of a single meal. So skipping a meal (or occasionally ignoring a side of peas) won’t make much of a difference over time if green beans, carrots, and other nutritious foods make regular mealtime appearances. Children are naturally erratic eaters, eating more some days than others, Satter says. Consistently giving them healthful foods and empowering them to decide which and how much of those foods to eat can help prevent food-related power struggles.
Table tactic: Turn off the TV. Or not.
Although television is often blamed for the perceived decline in family meals, a study published last year in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found families benefit from mealtime togetherness, regardless of whether the television is on or off. Among the 5,000 children and teens whose eating habits were analyzed, 35 percent reported watching television during meals. However, those whose families watched television during meals ate foods only slightly less healthful than those whose families turned off the tube. Children who ate alone consumed far fewer vegetables and calcium-rich foods.