For centuries people have focused on their diet, striving to stay healthy
by eating more nutritious meals. Whichever type of diet you choose, the
focus should not always be about food.
Shontae R. Buffington, M.D., appreciates the value of a family dinner. “I was raised by a single
mother. The one constant in my life was that every night, we sat down
to dinner together. Now, as a mom of two teenagers, I plan meals and we
sit down, undistracted. If my daughter comes home late from sports, we
have her meal waiting,” Buffington says.
Not only is Buffington a mother, but she is also vice chief of Pediatrics at the
Southeast Georgia Health System Brunswick Campus, and one of the pediatricians at
Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Pediatrics in Brunswick.
If a busy pediatrician can make time for family dinners, so can we!
The Benefits of a Sit-Down Dinner
As you juggle work, family and extracurricular activities, dinnertime may
get lost in the shuffle. October is Eat Better, Eat Together Month –
a great reason to rediscover the benefits of the family meal or dinner
Buffington admits it is not easy to find time, stating, “The challenges
can be too many to number.” However, as a pediatrician, she sees
the benefits, “In families who eat together, more thought goes into
the meal. They tend to be more balanced, with a protein, vegetable and
starch. The children are generally physically and mentally healthier,
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees. They report that “children
of families who regularly eat together are more likely to have higher
intakes of fruits and vegetables, have a healthy weight, and are less
likely to have behavior problems or use drugs, cigarettes or alcohol when
they get older.”
Sit-down meals establish a framework children can follow for the rest of
their lives. Especially if parents’ model healthy habits. “Most
habits – good or bad – are formed over time,” Buffington
says. Another benefit? “Overeating is less likely.” That helps
children avoid problems with weight, diabetes and heart disease.
If someone loves Southern food, but their waistline doesn’t, Buffington
encourages small changes over time. “You can’t overhaul a
person’s diet in one visit. I start by taking a food history of
what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I might suggest replacing
whole milk with two percent, diluting sweet tea by half, or eating half
as much grits as usual.”
She also teaches families to read food labels. “When you realize
your soda contains 16 teaspoons of sugar, you might drink it less often,”
Getting Everyone to the Table
Eating with family and friends on a regular basis may improve social skills,
healthier eating habits, and reduce behavioral problems in teenagers.
It is also associated with reducing stress in adults. When sit down dinners
disappear, how do you get everyone back to the table? “Start with
one meal a week,” Buffington says. “It doesn’t always
have to be dinner; breakfast or lunch may work better for your family.”
Buffington shares some tips to get you started:
- Establish a routine where everyone is expected to sit down at the same time.
- Turn off phones, tablets and televisions.
- Practice mindful eating. Put the fork down between bites. You’re
less likely to overeat.
- Engage in conversation.
- Serve simple, well-balanced meals – lean protein, a vegetable or
fruit and whole grains. Frozen and canned vegetables save time, as does
store-bought spaghetti sauce. Just choose products with less sugar, salt and fat.
- Use double-duty foods. Take half of Sunday’s roasted chicken and
toss it into Monday’s pasta salad.
- Make it fun! Plan a picnic, let younger kids choose a new fruit or vegetable
to try or let teens help plan meals. Choose a theme (Taco Tuesday?) and
make healthier versions of fast-food favorites (low-fat cheese, lettuce,
tomatoes and refried beans in tacos instead of meat.)
- Don’t run a restaurant. Everyone eats the same food.
- Small children love to imitate their parents. Let them help in the kitchen
– it takes patience, but you’re teaching life lessons along the way.