The nutritional, psychological and relational benefits of family mealtimes

If I were to ask you what 98 percent of kids love and what 79 percent of kids wanted more of each day, what do you think I’d talking about? It’s not ice cream or data, it’s not even pocket money or more time Snapchatting their friends.

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When researchers [1] asked over 500 New Zealand kids aged between eight and 12 years if they enjoyed sitting down with their family for dinner, 98 percent of kids responded with a firm yes, and 79 percent wanted more of it. To top it off, 83 percent of kids said they really enjoy helping out in the kitchen and 80 percent of kids said they enjoyed trying new food at dinner time.

If you’re choking on your cheerio right now because family dinners are near impossible at your place, let’s take a closer look into what all the fuss is about.

What’s the big deal about family mealtimes?

Recent decades have churned out study after study that consistently cite that when families sit down around the table and share a meal together, it’s like a superfood for the development of young hearts and minds [2]. It turns out that the ancient ritual of simply gathering around the table and sharing a meal together is pretty much hands down one of the the most important things you can do for and with your kids.

The nutritional, psychological and relational benefits

Why? For starters, it sets up a healthy relationship to food and nutrition, it wards off obesity and other health risks too. But the benefits of eating together around the family table are more than just nutritional – they are psychological and relational too.

The conversation boosts their language development (vocabulary and comprehension), it helps establish healthy family dynamics, it protects young minds from anxious and lonely thoughts and even strengthens our kids’ identity and resilience – which helps keep the bullies at bay and lowers risk-taking behaviours for teens.

In a time where the mental health of our kids is under increasing pressure, the Mental Health Foundation (UK) reminds us that the family mealtime is a protective factor for our kids’ mental health, giving them “a sense of rhythm and regularity in the busyness, a sense of containment and familiarity, and a deeper sense of contentment and security” [3].

Research from University of Mannheim (2018) echoes this, saying that “it’s not just the quality of food that’s important, but that psychological and behavioural factors also play a role” [4]. When the family emerge from their various corners of the city and gather in one place and at one time, around the table, it presents the unique opportunity to shake off the day, strengthen identity, remember that we belong together, share stories and have a laugh.

What’s getting in the way?

Here’s the thing – modern life is serving up way too many reasons that stand in the way of families being together in the same place at the same time [1]. A sobering 61 percent of kids wish their parents were not so busy so they could have more time together. Ouch.

We live in the age of food deliveries and the $5 hunger buster. A lot of us have somehow convinced ourselves that the drive-thru really is a life-saving invention and that sitting down with our phones really is the equivalent of solid dinnertime conversation.

I mean, we’re still in the same room and eating together, right? Ah, not so much. It seems that the real magic of mealtime actually involves a meal (albeit, a simple one and at any meal of the day), around a table (albeit, a small or broken one), with the family (albeit, an imperfect one) plus the all-important and essential ingredients – atmosphere and conversation.

Here’s the catch according to The Washington Post (2015) – parents need to be warm, engaged and accepting rather than uptight, controlling and restrictive [5]. Okay, so it’s not just the food that maketh the meal.

You’re not alone

Before you go kicking yourself to the curb or feeling stink about mealtimes at your place, let me encourage you that you are in good company –

  • 68 percent of us are feeling rushed and stressed about putting together the evening meal
  • 66 percent of us worry about our kids getting good healthy food
  • 58 percent of us feel like dinners are a constant battle to get our kids to eat what we are serving up
  • 58 percent feel the pressure to be a better parent and be more present for our kids

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of family dinners, you are not alone. Let’s face it, getting the whole family around the table can be fraught, so no one is saying it’s easy – only that it’s worth it.

One small step at a time

We all know that a family meal just doesn’t just happen by itself. It takes an intentional decision and concerted team effort, which, thanks to the research, we now know pays off handsomely.

So the next time you’re feeling all pressured about holding all the pieces of the nutritional puzzle together at your place, remember the ancient ritual that was etched into the stomachs of our ancestors. Take just one small step towards making it a priority to eat together with the people in your home. Remind yourself that underneath all the wincing and complaining, you’re actually laying a solid foundation for the future of your family.

[1] Independent research commissioned by My Food Bag, 2018

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them/?utm_term=.4b92989e8b21

[3] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/mealtimes-and-mental-health

[4] Dallacker, M., Hertwig, R., & Mata, J. (May 01, 2018). The frequency of family meals and nutritional health in children: a meta-analysis: Family meals and children’s health. Obesity Reviews, 19, 5, 638-653.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them/?utm_term=.4b92989e8b21

 

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About Author

Jo Batts

Jo is one of our Family Coaches. She is a qualified counsellor also working in private practice and running groups for tertiary students training to be counsellors. Jo is passionate about supporting couples as they wrangle the pressures of family life together.

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