When the present is so crazy busy, investing in our future, whether it be with our finances, relationships or health, while important, is often difficult. Here is a no-cost strategy that involves slightly upgrading something that you already do, but will improve your life today, while helping you become a better version of yourself in the future. Eat meals with others (immediate and extended family, friends, neighbors, co-workers) as often as you can (any meal or snack), wherever it makes sense at the time (barstools in the kitchen, dining room table, break room, picnic table or blanket at the park or in your backyard).
Eating together may sound too simple, but there is probably more to this than you ever thought! If you have kids (or grandkids, nieces/nephews, etc.) you can expect pretty amazing results. Research shows that children who eat family meals regularly, eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber, and less fried food, soda, saturated and trans fat. More family meals are also linked to doing better in school, improved mental health (lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts/behaviors) and lower risk of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders. When getting the whole family around the table is logistically impossible, sharing a meal with one other person works, too!
My four tips for improving your experience at the table with an added BONUS!
1. Set the tone – Since it can be difficult to transition from racing around to enjoying a meal together, we use a simple saying.
Shortly after our youngest child was born, we came up with a family “saying” that we recite before meals we eat together. You could call it an affirmation, mantra, manifesto, declaration, vow or prayer. Ours is long enough to set the tone and feel grounded, but short enough to memorize. We would suggest using some rhyming words, as they can make it easier to remember and a bit musical (which stimulates different parts of the brain). No matter how the day has gone, it is our cue to hit the ‘pause’ button and connect. Hopefully reading ours will help you get started with brainstorming your own.
“At this table and in this home, four hearts standing together are never alone. Each is able and each is strong. Each is filled with kindness, caring and song. Each has pride, character and love, and soon will be able to fly like a dove.”
2. Start an engaging conversation – While some always seem to have something to share, others are a bit shy or may not have had as much practice telling others what is on our mind. A good question can start a conversation to which everyone can contribute. Reflecting on our life experiences can go a long way toward improving our emotional and intellectual intelligence. With kids, it is important to remember that this isn’t a time for discipline, so stay focused on listening and keeping lines of communication open and safe.
Great questions to pose:
- If you could have pushed “pause” during the day to make a moment or an activity last longer, what would it have been? Why?
- If you could have one do-over today, what would it be? What would you have done differently? Why?
- How did you help someone today? or Who did you see help someone today? Describe what you saw.
3. Throw in a joke or funny story – Laughter is not only fun, but it a powerful protector of our mental health and can even provide physical benefits akin to a cardiovascular workout! It might work well to designate a “joke teller” each month or and have each person assigned to find a joke or funny story to share on a specific day of the week.
4. End with an acknowledgement for each person – At our very core, we are social beings, who thrive when we feel connected, heard and valued. When we take a moment to notice and compliment those around us, we make huge strides in strengthening our relationships. We can acknowledge someone’s actions, character/virtues or make a positive comment about something they shared during the meal conversation. Depending on how many people are eating together, either have each person give and receive one or have everyone share an acknowledgment for each person.
BONUS Tip: Consider recording part of it! I have wonderful memories of family dinners on Sundays with my Italian grandparents and wish that I could share that experience with my children. How incredible would it be for them to be able to hear my grandparents’ voices, sharing stories and bestowing wisdom? Use your smart phone, laptop or tablet to record your family members’ responses to the conversation starter questions or the acknowledgements. While keeping your meals free from electronics is an important policy, this is a worthwhile exception. If you have a growing family, these recordings will quickly become a prized possession. We use Evernote (evernote.com) to capture our voice recordings, since it works on multiple platforms.
In our fast paced world, often ruled by never-ending “to do” lists with more tasks than time, it is easy to lose touch with some of the foundational habits, including taking time to savor our meals with others. Not only will your present and future relationships benefit, but so will your digestion! Since we optimally digest our meals in a relaxed state, start implementing these tips at your next meal and enjoy the journey!
Special note: On evenings that you may eat alone, you can greatly benefit from working through these same tips, perhaps with the use of a reflective journal and quick online search for a joke, brief comedy skit or funny story.
Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified health fitness specialist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College, who conducts corporate wellness work throughout the area, and has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV.