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From our blog.

The Family Meal, A Sacrifice?

AMY GARDNER / May 2, 2016

Finding time for family meals is challenging.  Research shows family meals are connected to children’s overall health, self esteem and school performance.
Regular family meals (3 or more a week) mean a child may be 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier
foods and 12% less likely to be overweight. Teenagers who have regular family meals are less likely to be depressed (Hammons & Fiese, 2011).
The most positive outcomes are seen when all family members are present at the meal.  So, if we know all this, why is it so difficult to simply
sit down together and eat a meal?

If you’re like me, your routine looks better on paper than it does in reality.  It’s easy to carve out time on the calendar when you’re not accounting
for all those things that pop-up during the day or the additional transition time involved with young kids.  We are all simply over-scheduled
and no matter how hard we try to fight it, quality family meals are one of the sacrifices we make.  I find myself talking about this a lot with
parents I work with.  And it’s not just working parents.  Many stay-at-home parents “over-fill” their plates with volunteering, carpooling,
coaching and other activities outside the home.  Even if they don’t, their kids’ activities and hours of homework fill in the gaps.  It’s
so hard to fight this over-scheduled tide we’re in.  It certainly doesn’t help that all the activities sound so exciting and fun and of course,
everyone else is doing it!
Recently, the mother of an 8 year old client of mine shared that she’d decided to cut out her daughter’s dance so that they could have  more meals
together as a family.  It was a difficult decision but she decided that right now, this was exactly what her family needed.  She knew they
weren’t going to be able to make any progress on their health goals with fly-by meals or eating in the car every night.  Light bulb!  One
of the things I love about my work as a nutritionist is that I am often learning from my clients.  The timing of this session was perfect.  We
met just as I was planning my kids’ activities for the spring.  I was struck by her courage to push back against the current.  She actually
took away an activity?  You mean, you can do this?  It was in this moment that I realized, it’s my responsibility (along with my husband’s)
to preserve our family meals.  Would it be easy?  No.  Would it mean disappointment?  Most likely.  Would it ensure our family
time and meals would be blissful? Definitely not.  But, mealtime is something we both value in our family and we needed to honor it.
We decided that each child would be limited to one activity per season.  We wouldn’t attend every party, play date or family event we were invited
to or participate in all the school events.  While on the surface, this may sound easy and even selfish, let me tell you, it’s not.  My husband
and I are both the oldest of 3 children and aim to please – disappointing others comes with a lot of guilt.   Plus, I am the type of person who
really wants to do it all  and only realizes I can’t when it’s too late and I’ve burnt out.  Setting limits on my time is one way
I’m caring for myself.  So, let’s call it self-preservation  as opposed to self-ish.  Opting out always comes
with a downside for any of us with FOMO (fear of missing out) and I’ve already experienced some disappointment.
We gave our 6-year old son the choice of Little League or soccer this season. Somewhat to my relief (because I know the time Little League entails), he
chose soccer.  While his 1-hour a weekend practice allows for a lot of family meals and time to relax, I know we’re missing out on something else
equally as great. We’re missing out on the comradery and connection that comes from being part of the Little League community in our town and all the
tradition that entails.  Yesterday was “opening day” for Little League and it seemed all my friends and their kids were going.  My facebook
newsfeed was filled with the cutest pictures of kids in uniforms with baseball bats, carrying a banner as they paraded around the ball park. I imagined
all the parents chatting and taking pictures, sharing in the joy and pride of their children. I felt left out. This was a community event and we weren’t
a part of it. There was a sense of loss that came with this.  Beyond my own sense of loss, I thought,  “am I depriving my children?”  I
mean, kids don’t get much time to socialize and play at school these days.  Maybe they need these activities more than I realized.  The self-doubt
kicked.  I enjoy watching my kids try new activities.  I have visions of them horseback riding, swimming, at karate and gymnastics but I
know that the vision in my head is altogether different from the reality. They simply can’t do it all and still have time to relax and spend time together
as a family…. or could they?  I struggle with the mommy guilt that so many of us moms know.  So this is when it kicked in, the all-too-familiar
soundtrack – “maybe if I didn’t work 3 nights a week we could have regular meals together and they could do all the activities they wanted…. You’re selfish to be working…. yes, you need to work but… you also ENJOY it… and admit it, you enjoy that time away from them…. 
We all know that track gets us nowhere fast.  So, I did what I’m sure many other moms do (or at least should do) and changed
the soundtrack to another popular one, “Let it Go” (“Shake it Off” works effectively too by the way).  Then I went to my Sunday evening yoga class
and came back to a very delicious, unpleasant and forced family meal (ours looked nothing like the picture here by the way).
The dilemma is trying to balance it all.  I know for certain my kids aren’t suffering (and what a relative term that is!).  I guess it’s a little
easier to cut activities knowing my son would prefer to spend the day in his pjs alternating between the ipad and playing outside with his friends
than participating in organized sports.   I can’t imagine what it would feel like for parents whose kids really want all these activities to have
to say “no”.  I also suspect it’s a great feeling to see your child express interest in an activity; something you would understandably want to
encourage. Not to mention, spending time together at the ballpark can be incredibly special for a family.  I think what makes the balance most
challenging is when siblings have different activities going on at the same time.  Then, the parents must “divide and conquer”, a phrase I’ve
used numerous times myself.  It’s such a tough trade off – do you let your kids do the activities they want and encourage their interests or do
you preserve the family meal with the likelihood they’ll resent you for it?
One of the challenges I run into is that it’s difficult to know just how much is “too much” until it’s too late. There’s a tendency to realize we’re in
too deep after we’ve already committed.  I catch myself in this situation at work occasionally. I may get a referral for a new client that I really
want to work with and even though my practice is full at the time, I will find a way to fit them in only to realize, I can’t really accommodate their
needs effectively. This is something I’m working on in all areas.  It can be very difficult to set firm boundaries around our personal time.  We
may find ourselves justifying it by saying  “we’ll get that family time in on vacation” or that “having a slice of pizza at the game counts as
a family meal”.  Maybe.  However, let’s face it, activities often creep into school vacation too.  And if all our family meals are on-the-go,
kids are missing out not only on the benefits mentioned earlier but also on some basic life skills and important family traditions.  In his new
Netflix series Cooked, Michael Pollan talks about the universal ability of food preparation to connect us.  Watch the trailer here.
Interestingly, he notes that Americans are spending more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking.  A point he further details
in this NY Times article.

 

So, what do we do to change this?  Or do we?  Is this just modern living and we need to accept it and move on?  Maybe we can start by asking
for help.  I, personally would love to hear what other parents are doing to create more balance and find more time together as a family.  Have
you found ways to manage these activities and preserve family meals too?  Can you help the rest of us out?  Please feel free to respond
her or email me personally amy@metrowestnutrition.com