Can something as simple as eating a meal together help parents keep their kids safe from the scary depression and anxiety statistics? Eating foods that fight depression and help keep anxiety at bay is a great habit, but no matter what you’re eating, coming together as a family has powerful benefits.
Research shows that the more times teenagers eat dinner with their family every week, the less likely they are to use drugs and alcohol, the more success they have in school, and the less likely they are to fall into depression and suicide. According to school counselors, it’s vital to start those habits early.
The importance of family dinners can’t be understated. Eating together around the table is your chance to communicate with your kids, let them know they are safe and loved and listened to, and to teach them how to socialize as competent, kind, generous human beings.
I encourage you to eat dinner together as often as possible – and make it count! Even if you can only manage one or two dinners together in a week, focus on quality, not quantity. Here’s how to supercharge each moment to build kids’ brains:
That means adults and children cannot check their phone, watch a show, or text friends or be on social media. Ideally, not even a quick peek.
I asked Dr. Heidi Hanna, Ph.D, Executive Director of the American Institute of Stress, about the impact of screens on our stress level, and she told me:
“We are so overstimulated throughout our day and we’ve created these neural networks in the brain that are becoming addicted to this constant stimulation…especially movement. Movement triggers a potential threat reaction in our body…so if a family is together and there’s constant stimulation, it distracts the brain and depletes the energy they have to actually interact with each other.
Over time, this becomes addictive and we start to crave that – which is why so many people struggle to be present in the moment with the people who are right in front of them.”
Dinner needs to be a rest time for our brains so that we aren’t multi-tasking all day. This rest can reduce our stress – and chronic stress is a major factor in depression!
The body needs to be in a parasympathetic state to digest food well. When we are always running around, we don’t get into that restful stage.
Whether you say grace, practice a few slow deep breaths, or just offer gratitude for the cook, the food, the farmers, and your family, be sure to take 30 seconds to calm the body.
Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD, author of The Holistic RX, says that gratitude is an antidote to feelings of depression and anxiety. She tells her patients to find 10 things every morning that they are grateful for.
And Dr. Kelly Brogan, psychiatrist and author of A Mind of Your Own who understands the connections between food, mood, and the body, teaches “left nostril breathing” where you plug your right nostril and breathe through only your left for about a minute. Slowly, unlike my boys who think it’s hilarious to pretend they’re shooting you-know-what out of their noses. Ahem. We switched to regular breathing after a few attempts at this kind! RELATED: Check out this great interview with Dr. Brogan about depression and anxiety in kids.
Research shows that at most family dinners, the adults do most of the talking. I want to challenge you to let the children do most of the talking, because educators know that will build smarter brains.
We like doing High/Low or Rose and Thorn, two different names for the ritual of everyone sharing the best and worst part of their day. Make sure everyone gets a turn! Ask clarifying questions, like, “How did that make you feel?” or “Then what happened?”
When did you Laugh, what did you Learn today, and how did you show God’s Love and kindness to someone today? (or just “How did you Love others?” if your family doesn’t practice a faith)
Dr. Hanna confirms that focusing on something funny can help kids balance out negativity bias and see their entire day as more positive and build resiliency when bad things do happen. Laughing together also bonds people together! We find that we often start laughing about something when talking about when we laughed that day, because sometimes there’s a story behind it. If you have a teenager, you might just get, “I laughed at lunch,” every day, but hopefully one of the other questions will inspire something further. 😉
Your kids don’t need to know about how stressed you are at work, so even if that’s the “low” part of your day, try to make it a learning experience and not a “getting it off your chest” moment.
Stress is truly contagious at the brain level because of mirror neurons that will mimic what we perceive in others – when a parent is displaying a tense face, shorter tone of voice and increased breathing rate, unconsciously kids will imitate that at the brain level and feel physiological stress. They literally take your stress on their shoulders! Research shows this is magnified in people who care about each other.
This is also why we should laugh and talk about gratitude, because it helps us get into a more relaxed state instead of talking about to-do lists and accomplishments of the day. If we jump right into that stuff, our body language might be stressed, and our kids subconsciously both absorb and reflect that.
More than an old-fashioned tradition, asking to be excused to teaches children not only to be polite, but that the family dinner table is a sacred space that cannot be escaped just because they ate really quickly and want to run off to their room to play video games.
Part of connecting as a family includes expecting that the family will stay together, at least until everyone has shared whatever conversation tradition you adopt.
We can feed our kids healthy food all their lives, but if they don’t believe that it’s important, their life outside your home will sabotage everything. From the time they start visiting friends’ homes in elementary school to the moment they have the freedom of a driver’s license, and especially when they head off into the world as young adults, they will be making their own food choices outside of your rule.
The best way to help kids really OWN their own health and believe that it’s important is to help them start with WHY.
Simon Sinek teaches business people that their work will only begin to make a difference and be effective if they know the reason they are doing it and are truly passionate about that.
We can do this in our families too! We need to start with our own “why” and pass that down to our children along with healthy habits.
At our dinner table, (another reason family dinners are important,) we talk about what foods make us healthy and why sugary treats are just for fun. We read labels when a child gets curious, and we often ask Google about what nutrients are in a food, or how many grams of added sugar a child should have in a day. RELATED VIDEO: Teaching Kids to Read Nutrition Labels
Dinner sometimes becomes like a science lab, all of us pursuing curiosities and learning together.
We adults set good examples by trying new foods and foods we do not like, and we applaud progress, like when my green-phobic 5-year-old suddenly decided broccoli was amazing, and when my husband begin liking sweet potatoes after 35 years on the anti-mushy-orange vegetable train.
Pediatricians and nutritionists have all told me time and time again how important mindful eating is, and Heidi Schauster, registered dietitian, eating disorders expert and author of Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body and Self, says it’s one of the most important habits we can build in our kids. We must connect kids to their bodies and help them to listen, because the culture will try very hard to tell us to eat when we are not hungry and to eat more than we need beyond fullness.
I never make a child clean their plate, but we always say, “It’s good to listen to your body and know when you have had enough.”
We talk about how foods make us feel, and we always encourage our kids to follow their body’s cues.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, to let your kids make all of their own food choices right away, especially if there are candy or cookies or chips or crackers in your house! But if you have a table full of healthy options, it is a great idea to let kids listen to their own cravings and their own feelings of satiation or fullness.
The goal is agency, but with boundaries. Choices for kids within the structure of what parents deem acceptable.
And once a year or so, let your kids talk you into trying a food you truly despise, like my husband does with cucumbers and I do with cherry tomatoes. You’ll all get some good laughs over Mom’s or Dad’s facial expression, which will of course bond you together and reduce your stress. That’s taking one for the team!
RELATED: Check out Heidi’s challenging interview on how to build a healthy relationship with food. I was shocked!
I know you can take one or more of these strategies to building kids’ resilient brains at the family dinner table, and I also want to challenge you to keep the good things going in the kitchen, where you can truly build confidence, competence, and creativity in your kids while connecting and forming family memories.
But if you don’t know where to start – I got you covered.
I’ve been teaching kids to cook online since 2015 and would like to share a free resource with you:
Don’t worry, no spam here, no selling lists. I’ll send you the FREE download and some tips about kids and cooking, and you can ditch me at any time (although I can’t promise not to cry).