Office of Research

The most memorable meals of the year?

Published December 5, 2011

URBANA — Family mealtimes during the holidays can be memorable not only for the food that graces the table, but for the chance to reconnect with relatives, whether they're siblings scattered across the country or kids home from college.

"Family meals are important year round because they provide an opportunity for conversation and connection between parents and children. But, when extended families eat together during the holidays, the story telling and reminiscing that occurs often casts a warm glow that travels through the years," said Janice McCoy, a University of Illinois Extension family life educator.

Holiday meals that stretch across generations and households provide a sense of security for children and create a powerful ritual for young and old alike, she said.

According to McCoy, family meals are an opportunity to shape family culture and identity, develop respect between the generations, and encourage positive communication skills.

"Sharing intergenerational mealtimes can be mutually beneficial for young and old alike. Children feel important and have a sense of belonging when adults other than their parents care about what is important to them," she said.

And grandparents say that spending time with young people keeps them young and gives them an opportunity to pass on family values and traditions, she added.

When gathering your family, small or large, McCoy said the following communication tips can help keep conversations positive and helpful during mealtimes.

• Pay attention to what is being said, even if it seems trivial. You will seem interested and improve your relationship with the other person at the same time.

• Remove distractions. Turn off the television, lay down the newspaper, and make eye contact with the speaker. • Listen to the other person and comment on what is being said.

• Give the speaker a chance to finish their comment before responding. • Accept what is being said even if you don't agree. Accepting the person does not mean that you accept the idea.

"It would be wonderful if communication went well every time we attempted it, but sometimes we make mistakes," McCoy noted.

Here's how to help when conflicts arise:

• Stay calm and try not to get too emotional. Keep your voice even and steady.

• Stick to the subject. It might be tempting to bring up everything that has happened in the past but resist that temptation. Comment about the issue, not the person. Regardless of the situation, refrain from blaming, shaming, or name calling.

• Talk about your own feelings. When stating a different opinion, use "I," not "you." For example, say "I don't see it that way" rather than "you are wrong."

Done right, your family's holiday mealtimes will be remembered not only for the turkey and dressing and delicious desserts. Each person can leave the table feeling loved, respected, and part of a family that knows who they are, what they've been up to, and what some of each member's individual goals and aspirations are.

"Family mealtimes are too good to save just for the holidays. When your relatives go home, be sure to continue the practice with your children at least three times a week. U of I research shows that family meals are associated with many positive benefits for both younger kids and teens," McCoy said.