Monday, January 05th, 2009 | Author: mjward

The year-end holidays brought many get-togethers of family and friends. Most of them were built around sumptuous meals. In fact, sharing food helped make the occasion. These were not just times for eating, but also times for enjoying the company of others.

I remember my childhood meals with my family. Of course, there were the special ones to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, the presence of visitors and other events. But we sat down together as a family every evening, no matter how simple the food. When I had my own children, even when they were involved in many activities, we made a ritual of Sunday dinner. Everyone was expected to be present. The food needed more effort and usually featured a roast or other such meat, rather than the weekday spaghetti or casserole. And there was always dessert — pie or cake, most often.

A social policy report from the Society for Research in Child Development encourages family mealtimes. Although meals often last no longer than twenty minutes, they can have a profound effect on children’s development. Research studies suggest that children who regularly share meals are healthier, and that they are less likely to become obese, have eating disorders, or use drugs. They are more likely to do well in school. Restaurant meals and take-out food are a convenience for busy families, but they are rarely as healthy as home-prepared meals, which are more apt to include fruit and vegetables.

Dr. Kerry Daly of the University of Guelph states that family meals can be shortchanged during the week because of the demands of paid employment, such as shift work, or children’s activities. Often the time demands result in “grazing” where everyone finds something to eat when they’re hungry. There are other things that interfere with family meals, such as watching TV while eating. Arranging shared mealtimes demands special effort, which not everyone can afford. Yet meals together, like the holiday ones we shared, have a social importance far beyond their physical and nutritional value. They are a glue that bonds families. They are also occasions that teach social graces which will ease interactions with others far into the future.

The social policy report makes a number of recommendations as to how communities can support family meal times. Some require broad government actions. Others involve educating families on how to hold healthy family mealtimes. One appealing recommendation is the establishment of a family supper night. Workplaces and schools can set aside one evening free of activities and demands so that families can eat together. In the end, though, it is the parents and families who will decide that meals are an important event. Then they will make time for dinner together.

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