How often does your family sit down together to share a meal? One to two times per day or one to two times per week? Unfortunately, in many busy homes today, one to two times per week is becoming the more common response.

Fast food has taken over
According to a recent study of nearly 5,000 middle- and high-school students in Minneapolis/St. Paul public schools, one-third reported eating two or fewer family meals in the past week, 40 percent reported eating three to six family meals, and only one-fourth reported eating seven or more family meals a week.

Boys were more likely to show up for family meals, as were younger children. Family meals also were more likely to happen in affluent homes and homes where the mother was not employed outside the house.

What was once family mealtime has been replaced with take-out, fast-food or short-order cooking as household members juggle school activities, social calendars and variable work schedules. As long as everyone gets fed, does it really matter if the family eats together?

Yes, for both social and health reasons. In the Minneapolis study, reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the diets of children who reported eating family meals on a more frequent basis were higher in calcium, iron, folate, fiber and several vitamins.

The story was the same in a nationwide survey of 18,000 adolescents recently reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health. In this study, nearly one in five adolescents reported skipping breakfast the previous day. Nearly three-fourths reported eating fewer than three servings of vegetables a day and about half did not consume the recommended levels of fruits and dairy products.

In this study, kids who had one or more parents present at the evening meal had a higher intake of fruits, vegetables and dairy products than those who were less likely to eat the dinner meal with a parent present.

Social well-being
Mealtime also serves an important role in the social well-being of families. When family meals are reserved primarily for special occasions and holidays, children get the impression that daily family life doesn't matter and the adult world doesn't include them.

As a result, the child's peer group becomes their main source of social support. Having regular family meals helps bring order and consistency to a child's life. It also teaches them about how to behave in a group setting.

Ellyn Satter, a clinical nutritionist and social worker specializing in feeding and eating problems, has noted that the decline in family meals has come at a time when parents are increasingly concerned about childhood obesity and the eating behaviors of their children. Unfortunately, these concerns may add to the stress already present at the dinner table. Satter encourages parents to take responsibility only for what, when and where food is served, leaving children responsible for how much they consume and whether they eat at all. She has found that with this division of responsibility, much of the stress present at the dinner table (that of cajoling kids to eat) is removed so that family mealtime is more enjoyable and manageable for both parents and kids.

Family meals do not have to be elaborate to be nutritious, nor do they need to be prepared solely by the mother. In fact, meal preparation time is a wonderful time for all members of the family unit to interact, share responsibilities, develop skills and learn to work together.

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