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Family Meals: The REAL Value Meal

December 1, 2018

Host:  Dr. Jennifer Hunter, Assistant Director for Family and Consumer Sciences Extension, University of Kentucky

Guest: Dr. David Weisenhorn, Extension Specialist for Parenting and Child Development

Episode 25

0:00 Welcome to Talking FACS; what you need to know about family, food, finance and fitness. Hosted by the University of Kentucky Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Program, our educators share research knowledge with individuals, families and communities to improve quality of life.

0:20 Dr. Hunter: Hello and welcome back to Talking FACS. This is your host, Dr. Jennifer Hunter, Assistant Director for Family Consumer Sciences Extension at the University of Kentucky.

Today, I'm pleased to have join us, Dr. David Weisenhorn, our Parenting and Child Development Specialist. Today's topic is family meals and I loved when David came in that he titled it Family Meals: The real value meal.

So, David, let's get right down to the topic and talk about the importance of family meal time.

0:48 Dr. Weisenhorn: Okay. I love family meals. Family meals was such a big part of my growing up experience. I'm one of 11 children and so that in itself is a wow factor.

0:58 Dr. Hunter: Right.

0:59 Dr. Weisenhorn: My parents made it a point and it was a family tradition, if you will, that all of us, all 13 of us, sat at the table every evening to share a meal together. And while at times I hated that, because I wasn't able to go and spend time with my friends or do sporting activities; that were such a sacred time, but was also one of my favorite times because it was the one time that I got the spotlight. You're one of 11 children, you don't get a whole lot of time. And so, I would get the spotlight for whatever, 5-10 minutes.

As we walked our way around the table, “How was your day today?” “What was something you learned today?” or “What was the most exciting thing that happened to you today?” It really gave me an opportunity to do that. So, I love family meals.

But not only do I like family meals because it was a favorite growing up pass time but it's also a lot of science behind the benefits that come with eating meals and then they’re far reaching. So, you've got family meals have been associated with healthy eating, lower rates of obesity, decreased rates of food insecurity in children. It's also been linked to better academic performance. That's right parents; better academic performance, personal well-being, less alcohol and substance use, and less behavioral problems.

2:13 Dr. Hunter: So, I will say that I had a very similar experience, although there were not 13 of us. It's just my brother and I and my parents. So, we’re a family of four, but a very similar experience with family mealtime growing up. And I don't know that I appreciated it at the time, nearly as much now as an adult and as a parent that I can reflect back on it.

But my mom served dinner every night at 6 o'clock. It didn't matter what you were doing, what you had going on where you were, you better be walking in the door at 6 o'clock. And as we got older, especially after my brother moved away, that my mom didn't care who I brought in the door with me, and she might not know if it was me or if it was three or four of us that was coming in the door, but she felt that it was so important that we have that time to sit down and talk and also to make certain that we also got a good meal in our bellies as well.

But now as a parent, we very much try to model that within our household as well.

3:09 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yeah and we do as well. And I like the fact that you talked about how your parents invited your friends and they didn't mind.

3:15 Dr. Hunter: Right.

3:16 Dr. Weisenhorn: And I think this is a really unique way and a good way for parents to get to know their children's friends and that's a good way of doing it and letting guards down when people are hungry and you're getting those endorphins going from eating all that food.

It makes conversation easy and you get to talk about the things that you like or you didn't like about that day and you can get to hear how your kids’ conversation. It's just I think a really healthy way of spending time together.

3:41 Dr. Hunter: And I think that that's a great point too, especially with one or two of my friends that they did not have that opportunity at home to have that home cooked meal. But it made my mom feel good that not only she was providing that for them, but that also she got to hear that she could learn more from them about what was going on in the school or our lives than she could for me.

And so, looking back on it, I can definitely appreciate and sometimes I wonder now, especially as I'm preparing meals of how she did it, of how she always put that meal on the table and how she always had enough. And sometimes, I can find myself making excuses in my head of “Well, it's been a really long day” or “We have a sports activity” or “We have this” or “We have that”. But I also know that it's so important that we prioritize that. That we have to think through and planning ahead of how we can work through some of those barriers.

4:32 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yeah. And well stated. And those do seem to be barriers. And so, I want to be fair in putting that out there that a lot of research does show that sometimes the size or the space or lack of space also prevents people from getting together.

And I would just encourage that it doesn't have to be one specific space. It can be a lot of spaces that you can do that. You know, you can go outside often times and maybe put down a blanket or something and eat together or you try and combine a couple of spaces within the home to make that meal a possibility because of the benefits that come with it.

5:04 Dr. Hunter: Right. I've often heard that sometimes, people get so focused on the kitchen table. That it's not really about the kitchen table, it's the opportunity that we sit down, we eat together, we talk together, that we don't have a TV on in the background or that we're not distracted on our electronics.

So, as you mentioned, sometimes with sporting activities, if they're kind of crossing into the meal time hour, we do in our house what's called “A School Lunch Dinner” that we’ll just take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some fruit and maybe some cut up veggies or whatever and take it with us to the sports practice and then after it's over with, we have a little mini picnic, just to make certain we're still eating at a decent hour, but still have that family meal time together as well.

5:47 Dr. Weisenhorn: I love that. I think that's a great idea. My son is now playing soccer and 6 o'clock is when his practice starts, which is typically about the time that we’re either well into our meal or sitting down closely, shortly after we sit down.

And so, we've kind of jockeyed that around and said, “Okay, well. We're going to eat later, we're going to give the kids a little more of a snack and then we'll eat at 7:00 o'clock” and so mom works hard to get that that meal done while I take Elijah to soccer practice.

And so, yeah, that does take some jostling. I think there is. And I like the way that you said that it does take some intentionality on your part to try and say, “Okay, there are a couple days during the week that we're not going to have our typical dinner time. Is there a way that we can still make this thing work? “

6:31 Dr. Hunter: I love the divide and conquer method that you just explained as well, because we definitely implement that too that one of us will stay home and get dinner cooked while the other one does the running of the sports practice, or the piano, or whatever it may be.

6:46 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yeah. And you know, when I was thinking about my childhood experiences, one of the things that I wanted to mention is that the reason that the science shows such positive associations with healthy eating is back to the responsibility of parenting in that we're modeling what we're eating and how we're eating.

And so, when you sit down at the dinner table and there's broccoli, my son is pretty slow to grab a hold of that and then my daughter too. But the fact that mom and dad eat broccoli shows them that I'm not just forcing you to eat this or requiring you to eat something that you think is gross, but this is really good for you. And so, the more I'm able to eat and show that I'm eating healthy encourages healthy appetite for our children.

And I mentioned forcing, and I want to back up on that, so nobody quotes me on that. Actually, when I grew up, my parents were products of the depression and so eating and finishing your plate was a big rule in my house. When you had a plate full of food, you didn't leave the table until that plate right clean.

7:48 Dr. Hunter: Right.

7:49 Dr. Weisenhorn: And we've come a long way since those times and knowing that forcing children to eat is not healthy either and we don't want to do that. And so, when it comes to, “Well, my kids don't like to eat vegetables and I don't want to cook something that I have to throw away” what I'd like to tell parents is, “Don't force your children”.

Now, I do make all my children try the vegetables, whatever is on the table, eggplant, and I'm honest with them. We had beets the other night and my kids are just like, “Eeeew terrible, beets are horrible.”

8:17Dr. Hunter: That's a hard one.

8:18 Dr. Weisenhorn: Well, it's a hard one.

8:19 Dr. Hunter: It's a hard sell.

8:20 Dr. Weisenhorn: It's a hard sell. And I told them honestly. I said, “You know what? I didn't like them either when I was a kid. So it's okay”. And I don't mind them, but I want them to try it. And I think there's importance in trying it.

And a lot of times, my son I'll say before he even tries it, “I don't like that” and I'd say “How do you know that? You never even tried it. Try it. You've got to try it”. So, no forcing, but making them try.

So, I think again, the way that we behave as parents at the dinner table can influence our children in a great way to being healthy in the days to come.

8:49 Dr. Hunter: I know one thing that our pediatrician shared with us when our older child was just starting on table foods and that type thing and I was trying to prevent him from being a picky eater that I wanted him to be an open eater and I wanted him to try different things. And she said, “You know, he's not going to like everything on his plate” but she said, “Just keep putting it there. Keep exposing it to him. Keep encouraging him to take that one little taste”.

And one of his things was sweet potatoes that he decided, exactly like what you said about your son, that he did not like sweet potatoes before he ever tasted them. And I would always give her a hard time when we’re going for our Well Child checks and she would ask, “Well, what fruits and vegetables are you eating and all that?” and I'd say, “I'm still putting sweet potatoes on his plate. How many times do I need to expose him to it before he's going to like it?” I think it took us like 10 years, but he eats sweet potatoes now.

So, it's just persistence. And I just put a little bit on his plate and he would sit there and “Just take a taste. Just take a taste”. And he knew every time we saw that he was going to take a taste. But now, I think he would tell you that he really likes sweet potatoes.

9:52 Dr. Weisenhorn: Wow, 10 years of consistency. I'm impressed.

9:55 Dr. Hunter: I'm persistent.

9:56 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yes you are. And I think that's a great thing.

10:00 Dr. Hunter: Yeah. And it's part of it. I want sweet potatoes to be in our rotation and so therefore, I want him to eat it. We've been blessed with our daughter that she just eats whatever veggie we put down. Although I don't know that we've tried beets, but maybe I will and see what happens.

10:15 Dr. Weisenhorn: I know, it was crazy. And I always tell my children, “You know, our taste buds are changing every 7 years. Our taste buds are changing” and I said, “Yeah, it's important to try because today might be the day that you would like it”.

And so, I really appreciate what your pediatrician said as well is that parents, do not curb your meals to what your children like. It is an absolute detriment to a child's taste buds and the maturity that will come.

Continue to provide healthy meals, well-rounded meals. If they do not eat them, it's not a reason for punishment. But I like that idea of just being persistent and continuing to say, “Hey, listen. You're going to have to try this”.

And like you said, your son knew, every time that he saw that sweet potato that at least one bite was going to go down the hatch and so he had to prepare himself.

And I think that is just a really healthy way of encouraging our children to eat what's there and it makes them makes them better dinner guests at their friend’s house and that they're willing to try.

And that's what I tell them, “When you go somewhere else and somebody put something down that’s not the way you respond, ‘Oh, yuck. That looks gross’”.

You know, and those are important conversations that would happen at the dinner table. You know, like I want my children to be liked by other kids so that we get a night off. Just kidding.

But you do; you want your children to be liked and so that's important. And  think in being able to teach them proper manners and table etiquette is part of our responsibility and that can happen during family meals.

11:41 Dr. Weisenhorn: Before we wrap up today, I want to go back to something that you said a little bit earlier that you talked about the conversation that you all had at the dinner table of your parents asking you about, “How is your day?” and “What went well for you today?” Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of that conversation and maybe just give some parents some tips?

Because as we've talked before, I have a teenager and so everything in his world is “Okay” or “Good”. I think we have regressed to a two-word vocabulary. And so, finding ways to word those questions that he at least has to give me a full sentence sometimes has become challenging.

12:14 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yes. Yeah, and you're right. And only because I've run into those same roadblocks. You know the “How was your day?” “Okay, did you have fun today? Yes or no”.

And so, what I've learned is that we've got to stop with the “yes-no” questions and really ask open ended questions, “Tell me three things today that that you liked” “What was the weirdest thing you experienced today?”

And I try to temper that and there are cards out there. You know, I'd tell you Chick-Fil-A, thank goodness for Chick-Fil-A, they have done so well. They have those little meal cards that they gave away.

12:47 Dr. Hunter: Right.

12:48 Dr. Weisenhorn: Have you seen any?

12:48 Dr. Hunter: Yes, the family conversation tips.

12:50 Dr. Weisenhorn: Absolutely. You know, “Give a favorite vacation that you ever went on or a family story that you like” all those really do help. So, I think table topics are important because your child has to know that you're interested and truly interested in what they have to say.

And depending on where the age of the child is you would need to temper some of those questions. But I think asking questions that are open ended and that are specific. “So, how is your day?” Not very specific and so it can be difficult for a child to even try to maneuver and try to figure out what answer to give on that.

So, being as specific as you can. “How was the STEM class today?” or “Who did you play with at recess?” “What games did you play?”

You know, I'm talking about I have a 5-year old and a 7-year old. So, those seem to be rather appropriate and those tend to be, “What's your favorite soda drink?”  “Well, I like Recess” “Okay. So, how is skipping rope?”

13:44 Dr. Hunter: Right. So, as you talk about this that you can find this question prompts easily through an Internet search that there's lots of resources out there to find that. I know one day that I read someplace and I thought, “This is a good one to use, because he cannot not give me a one word answer” but it was, “What made you smile today?” And so, we did that a couple times and then he got smart and his answer was, “Face muscles”.

14:11 Dr. Weisenhorn: That’s very smart. A strong willed child.

14:15 Dr. Hunter: I know. But at least it was different than “Okay” or “Good” and it was a two-word response. So, now we have the, “What made you use your face muscles to smile today?” question and I'm certain he’ll find a way around that one too, but at least, you know, I think to him now, it's engaging, it's a game, he knows it's coming and he's thinking of ways to kind of spread the conversation in different directions.

14:36 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yeah, and I like that and I'll go back to what I think you did so well with the vegetables, with the sweet potatoes, and that is consistency. And so, I would encourage parents to consistently ask the questions, even if they may not be the best question. But the more questions you ask, the more you learn. And there is no mess up. So, no regrets in learning and trying to converse with our children. It's so important that we have these conversations and that we build that alliance with our children to let them know that, “Hey look. I care about what's going on in your life. I want to know what happens day to day. I don't just ask you this because it's what we do, it's a habit. It's because I truly desire to know how things are in your life.

And the more, I think, you can cultivate that relationship, the more those conversations will mature and the deeper they'll get and the more things, maybe whether you like it or not, the more things you'll learn as they continue to grow and they'll trust you as an ally.

15:33 Dr. Hunter: Right. This is such a great topic, David, and I feel like that we could talk for several more minutes about the topic.

But I will also encourage individuals that as you said at the very beginning, that research tells us that family meals are important in the development of our children and that if this is a topic that you're interested in learning more information about that contact your local county extension office that in December we’ll do a big push about family meal time.

And so, if you're looking for those tips, resources, additional, information about how to incorporate family meal time into your daily routine and daily schedule please reach out and take that information home. And just it is small steps. You know, if it's not something that's been part of your daily routine, shoot for one day a week or two days a week until it just becomes more commonplace.

16:20 Dr. Weisenhorn: Yeah. Absolutely.

16:21 Dr. Hunter: Great. Thanks so much for joining us today, David.

16:23 Dr. Weisenhorn: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

16:24 Thank you for listening to Talking FACS. We deliver programs focusing on nutrition, health, resource management, family development and civic engagement. If you enjoy today's podcast, have a question or a show topic idea, leave a ‘Like’ and comment on Facebook @UKFCSExt. Visit us online at or contact your local extension agent for Family and Consumer Sciences. We build strong families. It starts with us.