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Sometimes it seems that children just won’t sit still at mealtime. On occasion, they may be more inclined to stand up and turn in circles or imitate a favorite action hero than to sit nicely and eat the food that has been prepared for them. There is a reason for this fidgeting.

If you have a child who is excited about something, his or her little body is aroused. This bodily arousal suppresses appetite. So, a child who is excited is not being naughty when he or she resists sitting still to eat. All human bodies are programmed to have no real interest in eating when they are in a state of great excitement. Similarly, if a child feels anxious or fearful, his appetite will be diminished. For example, if a parent gets agitated around mealtimes, a child will pick up on this, and the result will be a lack of interest in the food.

If you try to fight against these facts of nature, you will be facing a losing battle. A better choice is to wait until your child’s level of excitement and arousal comes back down. When your child is calm again, he or she will start to feel hungry, and mealtime can proceed without the stress of a conflict over food.

The payoff is double for making family mealtime a stress-free experience. In the present when the children are young, mealtimes become a more pleasant time together. In the future, as the kids get older, benefits accrue. Studies show that the more frequently families eat together, the less likely their children are to engage in activities such as smoking, drinking, and drugs. Kids who participate in family meals on a regular basis also tend to do well in school.

Importantly, researchers find that family dinners improve with practice. There is something special about the shared moments of a meal. As family members linger over a meal, it becomes a safe place to get caught up in an idea or explore a difference of opinion. Regular, reliable meals together seem to anchor families.

More to consider: Social scientists find that the power of regular family meals serves as a “vaccine” that protects kids from all kinds of harm.