Question: My kids love to watch TV or view their cellphones or tablets while they eat. I used to eat cereal on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons when I was a kid, but my children prefer to watch a screen at every meal, every day. Is this something I should be worried about?
Answer: Research has shown that children who have family mealtimes at least three or more times a week are more likely to be of normal weight and have healthier eating habits. And children who have family meals are more likely to feel better about themselves, experience less depression, are less likely to use illegal drugs and tend to get better grades at school.
And while 63 percent of consumers believe that eating at home with their families is important, only 30 percent actually share dinner every night, according to a September report published by the Food Marketing Institute Foundation.
One of the reasons cited in the poll is too many distractions, including TV and social media.
With that in mind, researchers recommend that parents hold screen-free family meals as often as possible.
When compared to meals eaten in front of a screen, screen-free meals provide an opportunity for important social interactions between parents and children, says Ingrid Adams, an Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food, Health and Human Behavior in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
“Some studies have shown that family meals help prevent obesity and lower the chances that children will engage in risky behaviors,” she said. “Increases in screen time have been linked with unhealthy habits, such as eating more junk food, physical inactivity, poor sleep patterns and decreased social interaction.
“As a family, it is important to set healthy limits and boundaries for screen use, particularly when it comes to meal times.”
So how can you lessen the screen time at mealtimes with your kids? Adams suggests:
Eat your meals at the table. Have everyone sit at the table together rather than in front of the television while eating dinner. Have kids come to the kitchen when eating other meals and snacks as well.
Turn off the television during mealtime.
Create boundaries. Make firm rules about not using or viewing screens during meals. Set limits on screen time and where screen time can occur.
Remove distractions. Don’t bring phones, tablets or other devices to the dinner table. Consider removing any screens from the eating area.
Take turns sharing ideas. Have everyone take a turn sharing what he or she did during the day. This might help spark conversation and lessen the desire for distractions such as TV or phones.
Another tip? Set a good example yourself by not using any screens at mealtime and limiting your total screen time, especially when you are with your family.
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