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We often hear about the importance of family mealtime, but do you know what all the fuss is about? As a parent, it is sometimes easier to dismiss this family routine and feed kids fast food or prepared food in the car coming or going to their multitude of activities and events. So let’s pause for a moment from the rush of family life and learn a little more about the importance of eating together.

So much can be learned and shared around a dinner table. As children grow, they are constantly absorbing and learning from those around them. The same is true during mealtime. This is a great time for parents and family members to teach about table manners, engage in conversation and model healthy eating.

Children will mimic what they see, the good and the bad, so remember that they are always watching. If your child starts a new habit or saying new words, there is a great chance that they picked it up from someone in their sphere of influence.

Another important aspect of family mealtime is sharing with each other. Ask each other about the highlights of their day, or have conversation starters for family members to choose from to get everyone talking. Family bonds can be built through problem solving and sharing together. Family mealtimes are also a great time to talk about ideas, plans and upcoming events with each other.

Family mealtimes promote healthier eating. Research has shown that kids who eat with their families are more likely to:

— Eat more fruits and vegetables.

— Eat at a slower pace.

— Eat healthy portions.

— Be of a healthy weight.

— Learn the connection between food and health earlier in life.

Learning manners, healthier eating and conversation are just a few highlights of eating dinner together. There is plenty of research to support the importance of family mealtimes. Additional positive outcomes include fewer behavior problems, increased vocabulary for younger children, and a decreased chance of substance abuse for older children.

Still concerned about the time it takes or how to make this happen? Start by keeping it simple. Healthy doesn’t have to be elaborate. Get everyone involved in the planning and preparing of meals when possible. This will also help teach life skills. Families often think of dinner as the meal when everyone sits around the table. It doesn’t have to be dinnertime. If breakfast works better for your family, breakfast it is! Don’t discount the meals that happen over the course of the weekend. Hopefully that offers some additional opportunities to come together as a family to eat.

Some additional tips to think about: It is best to keep electronics away from the table so everyone can be tuned in to the conversation. This also goes for turning off TVs or music playing if they are distracting. Every once in a while, change it up you could have a picnic in your home, or get out the “good” dishes just for fun. Conversation and the good dishes aren’t just for the holidays. Enjoy your time together around the table.

For more information on family-life-related topics and programs, visit the University of Illinois Extension website at web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/ or contact Chelsey Byers at 217-333-7672 or clbyers@illinois.edu.