The Importance of Family Mealtimes

In many households around New Zealand the evening meal time goes something like this.  Mum has been in the kitchen cooking dinner, and calls out to everyone that it is ready.  Hands are washed as Mum dishes up the meals, everyone comes out to the kitchen then take their plates back to the table to sit down to eat together.

Unfortunately this is not what happens in the majority of households.  With after school activities, sports, committee meetings and working late it may have been some time since the whole family sat down together to eat, and yet research is beginning to show that eating as a family has great benefits for children and teenagers.

Connection

With our busy lifestyles, a meal can be the only opportunity in a day to sit down together as a family and really connect.  The time spent together over a meal, sharing news, planning future activities or just talking and laughing can foster a sense of belonging that really makes the family unit solid.

Manners

Family mealtime is also the time to teach table manners and meal etiquette.  When I eat with friends, and especially their children, it is something I always notice.  These skills are important, even in today’s more relaxed eating settings.  Not putting your elbows on the table, or eating with your mouthful are things we were taught when young, and good table manners are still important to teach our children today.  Try not to instruct or criticize—lead by example.

Conversation

Mealtime is also the time for children to learn other important social skills, such as conversation.  This can teach about the important of actively listening, taking turns to speak and waiting.

Better Health

Home cooked meals are often more healthy too.  They usually contain more fruit and vegetables and less processed, high sodium foods, or deep fried dishes.   Meal portions are individualised rather than super-sized!

The literature shows that adolescents who share family meals 4-5 times a week have healthier eating habits and body weight than those who eat with their families 2 times a week or less.

Self-sufficiency

Preschoolers can easily set the table, pull lettuce leaves apart, mix batters.  Older children can stir pots, peel vegetables and teenagers could even take responsibility for a simple meal with a bit of encouragement and practice.

By encouraging children to be involved with meal preparation you are providing them with a great foundation for being able to prepare their own meals once they leave home, and not have to rely on low-nutrient and highly processed foods.

Well-being

Regular family meals are related to better adjustment in children and teenagers.  Research shows that young people who have regular family meals report earning better grades in school, are more motivated at school, and get along better with others.   Children and teenagers who do not eat family meals together are also more likely to report feeling depressed or having trouble at school.

Substance abuse

Research shows that frequent family dinners (five or more a week), are associated with lower rates of smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use in pre-teens and teenagers when compared to families that eat together two or fewer times per week.  Even as older children’s schedules get more complicated, it is important to make an effort to eat meals together. Scheduling is a must.

Money saving

A home cooked meal costs substantially less than eating out in a restaurant or take-away options.  You can easily feed a family of four a nutritious, healthy and delicious meal for under $10, while the Friday night favourite fish and chips for the same family could set you back $20, with no nutrition at all!

Peace of Mind

With home cooked meals you know exactly what is in the food you are eating.  You can cook for specific allergies without worrying about cross-contamination and you can avoid any foods or ingredients (such as MSG or vegetable oils) by choice.  You have control.

How to Get the Whole Family to the Dinner Table

Make shared family meals a priority. Emphasize the importance of being together, not creating an elaborate meal that everyone will enjoy. Set regular meal times by writing them on the calendar. Let everyone know when dinner is served and when they must be home.

If the family is not used to eating together regularly, start small. At first, get used to eating together by scheduling family meals two or three days per week. Then, as the weeks progress, begin to have more and more regular meals.

Make family meals fun. Include children in the preparation of the meal and in the decision about what foods will be offered during the meal. Of course, parents have final say about what foods are prepared, but allowing the children to participate can create a fun environment.

Keep a sense of humour while at the dinner table.

Eliminate distractions, like TV, telephone, and cell phones.

Try to limit the conversations to positive or neutral topics. Do not let the conversation get out of hand and allow family members to criticize one another. Keep it light and fun. Create an environment that leads to healthy communication.

Be a good role model. Show children good etiquette and table manners.

Eat slowly. Remember, this is an opportunity for the family to spend time together. Do not make it about the food; make it about the family.

Do you eat as a family? Did you realise how important it was to do so?  I’d love your comments!

 

Research on family meal patterns and subsequent substance use in adolescents

Research on family dinners and adolescent well-being

Kris Appleby is a mother of 3 – a grown up son just engaged to be married, a 12 year old daughter who is suffering the puberty blues and an 11 year old son with autism.  I also own and run Healthy Alternatives, a company committed to teaching people about food – from how to grow their own food, teaching them what is in the food they are eating and hopefully inspiring them to better food choices, with further support if required.

I’m also passionate about sustainability, reducing waste and being kind to yourself and the environment in the food and products  you use.

Comments

  1. Great article. In our home, we look forward to mealtimes together as a way to catch up, share ideas and discuss the future. It is the one time of the day when I know that my children and my husband are eating healthily! A firm believer in sustainability, eating fresh and in season produce which are organic and tasty, I absolutely enjoy taking time to cook for my family, with care and love. I run a business, travel extensively and make time to bottle fruit, make chutneys, pasta, sauces and from time to time the odd cake or dessert. For me, it is about routine and commitment to that which is important – Love my family!

  2. So many wonderful points!!!

    A sense of humor at the table is an absolute must!! To be honest, in our home I don’t know how we’d survive without it as it’s a mission to keep everyone in one spot for more than 10 minutes but we’re getting there!

    Thanks for an honest and informative article!! Wonderful!!!

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