Families seem busier than ever these days. Kids fill their evenings with homework, sports and other extracurricular activities. Parents can’t always punch out of work at 5pm.
Maybe Mom or Dad wants to catch a spin class or yoga session after wrapping up at the office. Getting everyone around the dinner table on a consistent basis can feel like herding those proverbial cats.
And yet there are so many reasons to make time to eat together. “Regular family meals are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, behavioral problems in school and teen pregnancy—those are just some of the benefits,” says Anne Fishel, Ph.D., executive director of The Family Dinner Project and associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. “A shared mealtime gives kids a chance to connect with their parents and feel a bond. It’s that bond that’s so protective.”
But with everyone going in different directions in the evenings—an issue that often becomes more pronounced as kids get older—how do you ensure that bond is developed?
“Breakfast is our go-to answer for families who say they can’t do dinner,” explains Fishel, whose organization developed The Family Breakfast Project initiative. “A shared family meal is a shared family meal. Any of those count in terms of benefits.”
The benefits of breakfast
Breakfast really does have the potential to be the most important meal of the day in terms of nutrition. “When you’re sleeping, your body is in ‘power save’ mode. So you need to jumpstart your metabolism in the morning,” says Jacie Slocum, an Aramark dietitian at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center in Fort Worth. “Lean protein and foods packed with fiber will provide the calories you need and fuel your body.”
Slocum adds that ensuring a good breakfast doesn’t mean preparing a gourmet spread. “It can be something small, but having breakfast will increase your energy throughout the day.”
She notes that breakfast also is associated with less calorie consumption throughout the day (especially during nighttime hours), a decrease in diabetes and weight, and better performance in school.
And if you want those benefits for your kids, Fishel suggests you pull up a chair. “Kids are more likely to eat breakfast if parents are eating too,” she says.
How to make breakfast easy & fun
Sitting down to breakfast sounds so wholesome, but many moms (me included) have hectic mornings. Well, that’s putting it mildly. Truth be told, we run around like our hair is on fire. We’re throwing together lunches, shoving on shoes as we head out to the car.
For my son and me, a family breakfast usually means we’re both cramming cereal into our mouths on the way to school. So a sit-down meal where we have meaningful communication—when would I find the time?
It’s easier than you might think, according to Fishel: Don’t hit the snooze button in the mornings. (“Guilty,” I admit during our conversation.)
“We built out The Family Breakfast Project with the idea that if you get up the first time your alarm goes off, you’ll have at least seven minutes you can devote to a family breakfast,” says Fishel. “It’s less about quantity than quality. It’s about the atmosphere around the table. It doesn’t have to be perfect in terms of length, what you’re serving, impeccable manners—it’s about the connection.”
If your kids are cranky when they get up, it’s best to have a few tricks at the ready. The Family Breakfast Project recommends everything from creating a special morning playlist with your kiddos’ favorite tunes to playing silly practical jokes in order to get them going.
The Family Breakfast Project webpage also offers conversation topics, crafts, quick, healthy recipes, and more ideas that make breakfast easier and more fun (thefamilydinnerproject.com/the-family-breakfast-project).
Slocum emphasizes that you can make time for these things while still having a healthy morning meal. “Have those foods readily available,” she advises. “Set fruit out, have pre-portioned cups of yogurt—even just a banana and peanut butter is good. You can have a healthy breakfast without a lot of time.”
Moms can also invest more time in advance. “Sunday was baking day in our family,” Slocum says. “You can make homemade breads and freeze them so they’re available throughout the week. Your kids can help you bake, and that engages children more.”
Connection is what’s important
Even if you have to get up earlier than usual, breakfast can be a little easier on moms and dads than dinner. In addition to typically requiring less cooking, breakfast offers choices that are often more palatable to little palates. “Kids tend to really enjoy breakfast foods, so there’s less bellyaching about what’s being served,” Fishel says. “It’s easier to focus on what’s happening around the table.”
Still, if breakfast just isn’t an option in your house, and dinnertime is busy, Fishel says find some time to connect. “It doesn’t have to be the same meal every day,” she says. “Maybe you can do breakfast once a week, a couple of dinners, a weekend brunch and an intentional family snack. It’s whatever is doable and enjoyable for your family.”
Dietitian Jacie Slocum suggests these options for a quick, kid-friendly meal:
- Build-your-own yogurt parfait – Plain Greek yogurt or low-fat strawberry yogurt with an assortment of toppings (berries, low-fat granola, nuts, cereal)
- Dressed-up frozen waffle – Frozen waffle, toasted and topped with a nut butter or low-fat cottage cheese and fruit
- Toast and a little extra – Whole grain toast, topped with peanut butter and banana
Want more family meal ideas? Check out Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook (which includes breakfast too), written by The Family Dinner Project and published last fall by Familius.
Image courtesy of iStock.