By Melanie Carvell
As I was waiting in line this week at the post office, I couldn’t help but notice the Mother’s Day cards prominently on display as a more-than-gentle reminder of the upcoming holiday. These displays always set off a small wave of sadness and reflection as my mother, Eleanor, passed away a few years ago at age 89. After decades of picking out the perfect Mother’s Day card and gift for her, I no longer have that joy.
Time has flown, and now I am the (gulp) grandmother in my family, trying to fill her shoes and carry on the love of her kind heart, her hard-working spirit, and her culinary magic in feeding the body and soul of those she loved.
A big part of my mother’s love language was gathering our family of seven together most every day for a homemade meal, or two or three. Mother was a great cook and loved to bake, making homemade soups, breads, and cookies most every week. My parents were master gardeners, and we always had a wide array of home-grown vegetables. Our kitchen was a busy, warm, and engaging place where we were all invited (and often required) to help prepare our food.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but helping to prepare and enjoy those family dinners was a significant part of my development as a child and adolescent. Compelling research demonstrates the power of the family meal, offering all family members a consistent opportunity to connect, communicate, and belong.
Our children benefit from family meals in a number of remarkable ways.
Strong minds. Eating together provides a regular structure to a child’s routine, which can help provide security and improve well-being. Meals shared together can build a child’s vocabulary and conversational skills. Being exposed to conversation with multiple points of view engages children to think more broadly and can build an openness for opinions other than their own. Regular family meals are strongly associated with high academic success as well as a decreased risk of substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors.
Strong traditions. Passing down recipes is a powerful way to keep family traditions alive. My mother-in-law, Adeline, was eager to teach me how to make her famous Czechoslovakian potato dumplings and took the time to teach my daughter Kelsey how to make poppy seed kolaches, a Czech delicacy. My mother taught me how to make her German paprikash dumpling soup, which is now one of my grandchildren’s favorite meals.
Strong bodies & relationships. Family meals are associated with eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains along with less consumption of fried foods and sugary drinks. Children and teens are less likely to struggle with obesity and more likely to choose healthy eating behaviors as adults. Mealtime is a great opportunity for parents and other adults to model a healthy relationship with food — eating in moderation, enjoying a wide array of fruits and vegetables, exploring new foods, and stopping when full. Sharing meals or treats with neighbors and friends is an act of kindness that shows our children compassion and care while building their sense of community.
None of these benefits require that parents spend hours in the kitchen preparing gourmet meals. Meals can be simple with shared responsibility among family members. Make meal time a tech-free, TV-free zone and keep conversation warm and positive. Passing down family stories around the dinner table allows children to learn about overcoming adversity and developing resiliency. Children who know family stories and carry on family traditions feel connected to something bigger than themselves, leading to a legacy of better health and well-being for generations to come.