By Yun Yun Lee, Dietitian, Healthy Babies Network, Louise Dean Centre

You may ask what nutrition has to do with #BuildingStrongFamilies. Is there a magic ingredient, maybe a superfood that miraculously brings everyone together? I wish.

As a dietitian, I speak to many clients about food choices to improve their health, weight, pregnancy outcomes, and even mental health. In addition to that, we also talk a lot about eating behaviours, especially as it relates to picky eaters in the home, infants starting solids, and adolescent nutrition. The common theme for these different life stages is eating together.

Research shows that when people eat together, they tend to:

  • Eat a wider variety of food. As you may have heard, variety is key to nutrition!
  • Have healthier choices at the table.
  • Be less likely to have weight issues, and
  • Be less likely to have poor eating habits.

The social benefits of eating together are even more impressive. Research shows that when children and adolescents eat with family, they:

  • Have a better relationship with their parents and caregivers.
  • Are less likely to have alcohol and substance dependencies.
  • Tend to perform better academically compared to peers who eat alone or away from home.
  • Are taught how to become members of their society and culture, and
  • Have better social skills as they learn how to conduct conversations, observe good manners, serve others, listen, solve conflicts, and compromise.

Meals eaten together have always been socially and culturally engrained in our ancestry, no matter where you’re from. In times past, when food became scarce, food sharing enhanced community and vitality. It certainly is no different today!

Are you considering making family meals a mainstay? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Feeling like your family’s not quite on the health train yet? Don’t fret! Not all things are created alike – so do what works best and is most realistic for your family. Maybe it starts with one meal a week. Maybe it’s breakfast instead of dinner.
  • Have a picky eater at home? Focus on positive reinforcements and try following the Division of Responsibility (DOR). Fellow dietitian Ellyn Satter is a renowned picky eating guru. For more information on DOR, check out this link.
  • Feel like the burden of cooking is always on you? Share the responsibility! Kids who help with cooking, especially at a young age, tend to be less picky and more willing to try new foods. Check out this link for food skills for different ages. It may seem like their help is more work at the beginning. But as the saying goes, practice makes progress!
  • Make healthy eating fun with themed nights, such as Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday.
  • Involve children in the meal planning. For younger children, instead of an open-ended question (What would you like for dinner?) pose a multiple choice question (Would you like spinach or carrots with dinner?) For older children, have them select a recipe. Depending on food skill level, they can help make the recipe or make it on their own.

Finally, as with any behavior change, eating together is a lifestyle and lifestyle changes take time.  Sometimes you might have to go back to the drawing board. Persistence is key! Start with what works for your family no matter how small that may seem. Little changes make a big difference!

The Healthy Babies Network is made up of service providers and community-based organizations across Calgary. Member agencies share a common goal of optimizing maternal and infant health. Catholic Family Service serves as a coordinating body for the Healthy Babies Network. As well, our Registered Dietitians provide clinical assessment, referral and consultations to member agencies and their clients.