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Happy Meals Are Healthy

After-school activities, long days at work and commutes, it's no wonder only a few families eat dinner together. Yet studies show that the family dinner hour is an important part of healthy living. In fact the more frequently kids eat dinner with their families, the better they do in school, and the less likely they are to become sexually active to soon, suffer depression, experiment with drugs and alcohol, or even consider suicide. When a child is feeling down or depressed, family dinners can act as an intervention when we take the time to listen and pay attention to each other. Unfortunately a lot of parents don’t invest enough time and energy in family dinners and use the time factor, after school activities as well as to many conflicts during dinner as excuses for prioritizing differently.

Dinner turmoil

No matter how much we try to avoid it, the dinner ceremony often becomes the centre of family disputes. Sometimes we even conclude that it would have been better to eat separately. That’s all a part of the family-life cycle though, the more open and flexible we are to the harmony and disharmony the more authentic and present we become and the less family-life becomes a project with an agenda. The daily cooking and gathering of family members around the dinner table offers the ideal opportunity to catch up and tune into the wellbeing of every member of the family. That’s the main focus, but don’t forget appreciating the food – acknowledge the love and care that went into buying it and preparing it. An important step to avoiding conflicts is for parents to discuss, investigate and state their values while the children are still young. These values become guidelines in every situation that demands a perspective or a quick solution and will be respected by the child.

State your values

When your family agrees on its key values and consistently live up to them, you'll build a stronger family identity and reduce conflict. Certain values fall into place naturally; if you're married, you and your husband are probably committed to each other in the first place because of values that both of you share. But be aware not to let your values evolve on their own, but consciously shape and name your core principles. Defining your values as a couple will not only reinforce a lot of the qualities that brought you together, but it can also help steer you through hard times. Although the grown-ups in the household should facilitate the discussion, children can also take part in framing your family's ideals. Ask your children what they cherish about time spent together and include that in your daily rituals – that way everybody becomes more aware of the key values.

The atmosphere and community feeling

The table is where we mark milestones, share dreams, bury hatchets, make deals, give thanks, plan vacations, and tell jokes. It’s also where children learn the lessons that families teach: manners, cooperation, communication, self-control, and values. Following directions. Sitting still. Taking turns. It’s where we make up and make merry. It’s where we live, in between bites." All cultures have their own eating habits and traditions, but one thing they all have in common is the quality of the atmosphere that surrounds the preparation and the eating. Both those of happy reunion or quite harmony but also those where it seems like a volcano erupted with underlying conflicts are saved in our memories because we where together with people that matters to us. Whether it’s the delicious food or beautiful surroundings or perhaps a special occasion or a memorable conversation, it all boils down to a multi-faceted sensory perception that is more than just feeling full.

Establish rituals and routines

Families need rituals and routines to create a sense of community and belonging. Rituals can be religious, national, or even family-specific like taking turns choosing appropriate background music or being in charge of dessert. Some takes turns in saying grace or in choosing the discussion topic. In some families, Tuesday is pizza night and Friday is family game night or the Jewish Sabbath. It’s the fact that you always do the same thing that reinforces the ritual aspect, and creates the feeling that this is home, and family, regardless of the day’s difficulties, life is good.

Especially small children thrive when they feel the continuity and predictability that daily rituals provide; rituals tend to bring family members closer together because they are repeated over time. Sharing a meal at a table is a bonding ritual that built self-esteem through a sense of belonging and as a result we feel more happy and at peace.

Use blessings to create a sense of gratitude and connection

For some people, saying grace is a time-honoured tradition they wouldn't think of overlooking; for others it feels foreign and artificial. "I don't believe in God, so we don't say blessings at dinner!" But blessings are not about God, necessarily. Blessings are about us: our gratitude that we are able to sit down to a meal when others are hungry, our appreciation of each other, our honouring the person who prepared the meal and the bounty of nature that produced it, our awareness that in this moment we have everything we truly need. Blessings don't have to be traditional prayers to "God." Blessings are a way of marking the meal as a sacred time together, a way of connecting us together in the deliciousness of shared appreciation.

Turn of all electronic devises

Unfortunately, too many families routinely watch television during dinner, indicating how challenging it is to make dinner fun and relaxing when everyone is pressured and tired. It can be a lot easier to turn on the TV at the end of a long day than to interact with your kids. But eating in front of the TV builds your relationship with the TV, not with each other. Watching TV while chewing food is a recipe for poor communication and bad manners, it also encouraged "lazy" eating and reduces family cohesion.On the other hand eating around the table enjoying each other's company without the distraction of TV enhances family connectedness and teaches respect for formality, listening and politeness.

Limit afternoon activities

Today, a growing number of kids are overscheduled and participate in six or seven after-school activities per week. The mother becomes a chauffer and the children are never home at the same time. This is not a recipe for a happy family-life. If conflicting schedules mean your family can't sit down at least a few times during the week for dinner, it's worth some creative thinking. Can the schedule be changed so that you all eat earlier or later? Can a child switch to after-school rather than evening activities? Can you all at least gather together for dessert before bedtime so that you get some family time that evening? We lose an important opportunity to check in and connect if we lose dinner, especially if we work away from our kids all day. Dinner is such an important foundation for family culture that it should be a cherished family tradition, instead of something to be skipped whenever the situation calls for it.

Schedule family dinners

Most families can’t eat together every night. Sometimes an adult is out of town, or a child has a school event. Some parents try to keep one night as date night to keep their bond with each other fresh, and many families routinely socialize on Saturday nights or have Sunday dinner with extended family. But you can create the expectation that on certain nights, everyone comes home for dinner. Start small, if you need to, with one or two nights a week. Even those limited by a long commute or odd hours can often manage a night or two, and those nights become extra-special for everyone.

Get everyone to help out

Once the kids get used to the idea, the group effort can be fun, and of course it's a great learning experience for them. Most important, it changes the dynamic of one adult (usually the woman) serving everyone else. Teenagers, especially, often enjoy the power of deciding what the family eats one night a week; learning to cook is good practice for when they go solo. Obviously, this won't happen every night, and busy weeknights are the hardest, but you might want to talk as a family about whether everyone could help get dinner on the table one night a week to start. You can start small, by dividing the chores among the family members and get someone to set the table and get the food onto the table and another to do the clearing and clean up.

Appreciate each other

We have a tendency to take each other for granted and forget to express how much we appreciate one another. We seem to forget that with appreciating comes happiness, simply because we accept what is. The truth is, happy families also have cranky kids, messy houses, and money struggles, just like everyone else. But underneath it all, they have a core of contentment that sustains them through all of life's ups and downs. Truly happy families have the resiliency to face life's challenges and stay strong. They have experienced that going through difficult times can actually make them feel more connected as a family and a good place to build on these values is around the dinner table. So don’t forget to enjoy your dinner, and the family you share it with - Bon appetite!

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