Family mealtimes – why and how to keep them around

Mealtimes have become harder to arrange and there are lots of other pressures competing for your time and focus. However, there really isn’t much else that can compete in terms of value and benefits. Research from both nutritionists and family life professionals shows families who eat together more than four times a week, reap these benefits –

  • More nutritious meals and knowledge of basic cooking skills
  • Opportunities to practice social skills and table manners
  • Improved family communication
  • A greater sense of community and family values
  • Stronger family traditions

A University of Michigan study showed family mealtime was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behaviour problems.

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Children who eat regularly at home

  • are less likely to smoke, use drugs or alcohol
  • perform better in school
  • have a lower rate of teen pregnancy
  • are less likely to develop weight problems

Some families would argue that having a meal together is not a lot of fun, but there are certain ingredients that foster fun and closeness. Create an atmosphere that is warm and friendly. Your family will test the value of the mealtime on how it ‘felt’ and how much it was enjoyed.

How to make mealtimes memorable

Create ‘buy in’

Do this by sometimes letting the children help choose what to have for dinner, prepare part of the meal and set the table.

Set some easy-to-keep rules

Such as – the child who set the table gets to choose where to sit. You could try adopting Monday as the special day to focus on manners. For example – we stay seated on our bottoms, we don’t talk with food in our mouths, and we ask before we get down from the table.

 Give every meal a ‘start’

Every meal needs a start. Some families take turns in who wants to say a karakia and other families begin the meal with a thank you to the cook. Everyone should be seated before you start.

Get everyone to say something positive about the meal

Children may naturally dislike some foods and they can learn to share this respectfully, not rudely.

Create opportunities to talk

These are essential. Some families play ‘the highs and lows of the day’ where each person talks about the best part and the worst part of the day. To keep this flowing – try using the pepper shaker and move it around to each person. Another great way to create a fun atmosphere is to use conversation starters and have a special box in the table that these unique questions can sit in. Everyone gets to pick a conversation starter and answer the question.

Bring out special decorations occasionally

Have certain times when there are candles on the table, when you use the special dinner set, have menus made, put on a favourite CD, and a vase of flowers on the table.

It doesn’t have to be dinner time

If someone can’t make it to dinner, wait and all eat dessert together. If it’s a challenge to arrange dinner time, make a special event out of morning tea, afternoon tea or supper.

Have times of celebration

You might focus on a school achievement, sporting success, completion of a task, area of effort, or willingness to give something a go. The Red Plate can be awarded at times like this and the recipient gets to eat off this plate.

Some children find it hard to accept the disappointment of not getting the accolade. This is a wonderful opportunity to coach your children to remember, “When something good happens to someone else be glad for them, not sad for yourself”. Mums and dads should also be awarded too when they’ve done well at something!

Put devices away

Studies show that one of the positives about eating with screens off is that children eat healthier meals. If screens are not invited to the meal, you’re more likely to have better conversation.

What to avoid and what to include

Avoid

  • Using every meal to focus on manners. This will create a tense atmosphere. Manners are important, but too strong a focus on them can undo a pleasant atmosphere.
  • Hijacking what the children share to growl at them or correct them.
  • Being negative about the food. Children pick up your labels and adopt them!
  • Serving too much food on the plate. Start with small servings. Children can ask for more if they are still hungry.

Include

  • An opportunity for children to choose food from the table.
  • Letting your child have a few items they don’t have to eat – they can choose which. “You are allowed to leave one food that you do not want to eat today.”
  • Your kids with helping with the shopping, picking herbs or veggies from the garden, finding a recipe, chopping or mixing, serving the food, pouring the drinks, setting the table, clearing the table etc.

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