For many people, busy and changing lifestyles have resulted in the family meal becoming less of a priority. However, The Benefits of Family Meals means it is really worth taking the time to sit and eat together.
It is not surprising that family meals are coming under attack.
- Heavy workloads and long hours, often necessary to make ends meet, make planning and creating family meals really difficult.
- Then there are the after school activities, families arriving home from them hungry and exhausted so food needs to be there fast.
- Furthermore, the quantity of technology that has hurtled into our lives, over the last two decades can very easily find its way to the table. This can result in everyone becoming a single unit as emails are checked, games are played, or tv is watched. The food and the family conversation becoming less important than the technology.
Family mealtimes should be about more than just food, they can be a time for positivity, conversation, sharing, and celebrating aspects of one's life. But- if families come to the table to criticise, control, become distracted by technology or sit in science then positive benefits will be limited.
Nutritional Benefits of Family Meals
Families who regularly eat together tend to have better eating habits. The family meal provides parents and other adults, an opportunity to model healthy eating through trying new foods, eating appropriate portion sizes and stopping when full.
Children who eat with their families, are generally more open to trying new foods and they develop a healthy relationship with food. In addition, it is an opportunity for parents to recognising early signs of eating disorders. Once recognised intervention can be planned.
One study, that investigated if the frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents, showed that children and adolescents who share family meals, three or more times per week, are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than three family meals together. In addition, they are less likely to engage in disordered eating. (1)
Family meals can make a positive impact on young children’s language skills. Mealtime conversations allow children an opportunity to acquire new vocabulary and learn through discussions, narratives and explanations. Children who have a large vocabulary generally read earlier and more easily.
Research shows that teenagers, who have frequent family dinners, are more likely to get better grades in school with one study showing that those who have dinner with their families seven times a week are almost 40% more likely to say they receive mostly A’s and B’s in school compared to teens who have dinner with their families two or fewer times a week. (2)
Family mealtimes are an opportunity to teach children manners, turn-taking, social skills, how to clean up, share responsibility and cook healthy meals. Furthermore, it helps younger children develop patience and fine motor skills through passing dishes, plating their meals and the use of utensils.
Frequent family meals allow plenty of teaching and modelling of these skills. However, this may not happen overnight and may require perseverance by all.
Sharing a meal is time to catch up, enjoy conversation, togetherness, relaxation and laughter as a family. Mealtimes also give the opportunity to share family traditions from one generation to the next. This might include special food for celebrations or cultural foods from a family’s background. As children grow older, these may provide meaning and importance throughout their lives.
Research shows that shared meals can have a positive effect on family relationships. According to the White Paper Study "Share the Table" (3) 72% of children feel closer to their parents when they have dinner together and a study, conducted by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, showed that teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to report having high-quality relationships with their parents. (4)
If family dinners are a quality, positive experience then they can benefit both the wellbeing of children and adults.
Family meals should provide routine and structure to the day. This can give young children a sense of security and stability as they know when and what to expect.
Open communication at family meals may give opportunities for older children to discuss social and emotional issues and in turn allow parents to be aware of and monitor their children’s moods, behaviours and activities.
One study showed that teens who have dinner with their families at least five times per week are almost one and a half times less likely to report high levels of stress (5)
According to the "Share the Table" White Paper, parents who have family dinners have more feelings of happiness and enjoyment in their lives and have higher overall life satisfaction.
Make More Family Meals Happen - Tips for Eating Together
A large majority of us understand the benefits of family meals and wish to have more of them. However, we can find it quite challenging due to family circumstances and afterschool commitments. Even with the best intentions, it is hard to make family meals happen on a busy weeknight.
Here are a few tips to help make family dinners happen more often.
- Meal Plan: Plan ahead, decide your meals, shop and even prepare meals so that busy evenings run smoother and mealtime stress is limited. Remember the focus is on family time and not elaborate meals. Keep it simple!
- Be Flexible: Family meals won't always be possible, plan to eat the meals you can with your family. Remember any meal will do, dinner isn’t the only opportunity, you can try breakfast, or a weekend lunch together. Start with one or two meals and slowly try to increase.
- Make sure your children are hungry. If they’ve been given a snack too late in the day and they have no appetite they are less likely to want to sit together at the meal and eat, only making it a stressful time rather a fun family bonding experience.
- Technology Free: Make mealtimes a technology-free zone, this is for all members of the family, not just the kids. Make it a time to talk to one another without the distractions of whoever decides to text or call you. A clear ban will stop arguments about it at the table, making the meal a more enjoyable and meaningful experience.
- Involve Your Children in planning, meal prep & setting the table: Children who are involved with planning and preparing their meals are more likely to eat and enjoy them. Older children can take responsibility for cooking one meal a week, they will feel pride and joy sitting the family down to their home-cooked meal.
- Family Clean Up: Assign tasks to every family member, even really small children, make it a family job.
- Make it positive: Try not to pressure, bribe or nag at the table. Focus on providing a positive and relaxed environment and less on what your children are eating.
- Conversation Starters: Although you don’t want to restrict topics of conversation, if mealtimes become a place of constant bickering or negativity it won't be a happy place. If no one seems to have much to say, you can get positive conversations started with a few open-ended questions. We love to start meals taking turns to discuss 1) Our favourite part of the day 2) Something nice you did for someone that day and 3) Something nice that someone did for you.
1)Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Pediatrics. 2011; 127 (6): e1565-1574
2) The importance of family dinners II. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University Web site. http://casafamilyday.org/familyday/files/themes/familyday/pdf/Family-Dinners-II.pdf. Published September 2005. Accessed March 28, 2020
3) Doherty, Dr. William. Share the Table: Benefits of the Family Dinner for Parents and Children, A White Paper Study, http://www.sharethetable.com/docs/ BenefitsofTheFamilyDinnerWhitePaper.pdf Accessed March 28, 2020
4) The importance of family dinners VIII. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University Web site. http://casafamilyday.org/familyday/files/themes/familyday/pdf/Family-Dinners-VII.pdf. Published September 2012. Accessed March 28, 2020
5)The importance of family dinners VIII. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University Web site. http://casafamilyday.org/familyday/files/themes/familyday/pdf/Family-Dinners-VII.pdf. Published September 2012. Accessed March 28, 2020
6)Doherty, Dr. William. Share the Table: Benefits of the Family Dinner for Parents and Children, A White Paper Study, http://www.sharethetable.com/docs/ BenefitsofTheFamilyDinnerWhitePaper.pdf Accessed March 28, 2020
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