Family Meals on the Run: Is the mini-van the new dinner table for families involved in youth sports?

Did you know that researchers of the University of Minnesota have found that sitting down as a family at the dinner table appears to play an important role in promoting healthful eating in kids? Among children ages 11 to 18 who eat meals with their family consume less snack foods, higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and nutrient-dense foods than those who eat separately. Additionally, family meals are related to healthy weight control (and less prevalence of eating disorders for girls. More on the girl-specific findings here), better academic achievement (GPA), and less substance abuse in children.

mini van dinner tableHowever, sitting down at the family dinner table is not a reality for many families involved in youth sports (especially with multiple children!). This week my college tennis teammates got together with our families for a picnic. One of my friends with 3 children in youth sports all under age 10 said, “I don’t even know what sitting down at the table together looks like anymore! This is our dinner table (pointing to her “cooler” that looked much like a giant padded purse).” So it got me thinking—

Do the benefits of family meals ONLY accrue when families sit down together at the dinner table? From some data I’ve been collecting, 15% of youth sport parents report youth sports “never” interfere with family meal time, and 7% report it “frequently” interferes—leaving a majority of parents to claim it “somewhat” interferes. Is the mini-van the new dinner table for families involved in youth sports? I feel a future research project brewing…

7 Replies to “Family Meals on the Run: Is the mini-van the new dinner table for families involved in youth sports?”

  1. This would be a much needed research project. Unfortunately, everything points to actual time at the table as having no real substitute. Not what any of us want to hear, but nonetheless critical to our planning. So if sports is your life and there is no way to do dinner around the table, then make it breakfast that all are required to gather together and breath or perhaps late night snack before all go off to bed. We can do this! http://mjstabletalk.blogspot.com/2008/10/academic-survey-of-table-research.html

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  2. MJ,
    Thanks for you post and resources on your blog. My question remains however, if the family is “gathered” in the mini-van or sitting in a park waiting for the youth sport event to take place, then isn’t that enough? Does it HAVE to be a table, or is the process of gathering? I understand that the need to meaningfully connect is the key here, along with WHAT we eat around the table. What are your thoughts? -nml

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    1. This is the root of the issue for most people. It is not the table exactly, but the expected contribution, routine, and guarded space that makes the table the effective tool. Any where else is rushed, distracted, and too public. Which does not allow a child to “have a place” or explore topics in any depth. The presence of the table and food automatically assumes intimacy with whoever is around the table, and the expectations of that community gives them a sense of belonging and rooted identity. This is where the power lies.

      This is also why the specific meal time does not matter as much as the intention of the space. In the car you are not looking at each other and there is an anticipated interruption when the car gets to its destination. Everyone’s minds are else where. Also, sporting events are about support to the specific people participating in the event, which has benefits of its own, but different from what family meals achieve. It is simply a space that cannot be duplicated with the same results.

      The good news is anytime we spend with our kids is a great thing. The meal should be a foundation and then build their lives and schedule around that. This will look different for everyone. Maybe for you it is a dinner every Sunday and two dinners during the week around the table and on the other days around the breakfast table. Or maybe it is a late night snack with everyone before bed. The formula is expected routine, being together with face time and interaction, good food, uninterrupted, and a place that is home for long-term place.

      On my website you will see a list of books in the left hand margin that deal directly with the time issue. It is the number one barrier to the family meal. Sharing our ideas and tools for how we each do this can help all of us figure out solutions for our own families.

      I would love to hear more on how you work through these challenges. Sports is a huge part of our lives that provides endless benefits, and coupled with the power of the table, you have a great formula for raising healthy kids!

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      1. MJ,
        Great response and thought provoking. I don’t deny that intentionally created space is critical to meal times, but as you know for many youth sport families “sitting around the dinner table” is just not possible, even they wanted to do so. To achieve this, many would have to forgo sports! I like your idea about breakfast being the “family meal” but in the morning attentions are at half mast and the focus is on getting out the door which creates a different problem. I hope we can hear from some other sport parents on this matter as it is an important one to discuss. Thank you for your insights and for sharing your links, blogs and materials. -nml

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  3. I think with the multiple children families the process of gathering is not that easy. Whether it be at home or at the event. I am just recently out of the child stage of this situation. I know that for my family and for many of my teammates families sit down family dinners were almost a joke. When everyone is so active and involved in a community It is hard to gather everyone in one space for a prolonged period of time.

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  4. This is the challenge. Sports has amazing benefits for children in health and development of self confidence. How do we mesh these two great tools/activities that give our kids so much? I still feel the most important response is that we are aware and trying to figure it out 🙂

    Thanks for the great discussion!

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