Family meals have been shown to improve eating habits in children, but I believe are also beneficial for the whole family.
By eating with their parents (or whoever is living in the home) kids are able to learn developmental skills via modelling (e.g. correct use of cutlery), they are able to improve social skills by engaging in conversation and interacting with family members and finally, the pressure to eat is removed as everyone is hopefully going about their own meal, thus improved volume and diversity of intake is usually seen.
If you think about these scenarios:
Toddler sitting alone at his high chair with mum or dad sitting/standing around waiting and watching him eat, versus
Everyone chatting and eating at the dinner table where his high chair is pulled up .
No matter how ‘nice’ you make scenario one, it will never be as natural and relaxed as scenario two. Benefits of family meals are also seen for the adult family members too. Early meal times can prevent unnecessary snacking, improve digestion, prevent reflux and contribute to a greater time period of fasting overnight, which is all linked to improved health, quality of life and weight management.
Of course anything with such benefits is bound to present some challenges pulling off. I’m sure there are many family situations where this is just not possible due to one parent working late or limited time to prepare a meal after commuting from work and picking up the kids. For those families who can’t change routines, that is totally understandable, but I would recommend trying to do a family meal at least once a week - on weekends or even at a meal earlier in the day (like breakfast or lunch) as benefits will still be gained from those experiences. It is definitely not something to stress about if it can’t be done, as I hate giving people (mum’s especially) another thing to try to do ‘right’ or spend any time worrying about. But if you have kids that struggle at dinner time and the possibility is there to co-ordinate a family meal then I encourage you to give it a go.
At my place we started doing this a few times a week when I felt organised enough and was home in time. I noticed some really good benefits from those meals, so I decided to commit to making family meals happen most nights!
Tips to help this happen:
Communicate to your partner about the proposed dinner time - My husband now aims to be home in time each night. I think he likes knowing that dinner will be ready when he arrives home hungry.
Plan meals ahead - Try to have an idea of what you’re going to cook each night and have the ingredients ready at home (I’m a big fan of online shopping to help out with this).
Take advantage of any time you might have earlier in the day - Chopping vegetables at lunch or putting on a slower cooker in the morning (I try to do this on a work day when I know the evening is going to be rushed).
Where possible plan activities to allow time at home to cook before dinner - here I’m talking more about social activities and playdates (controllable things).
Ensure the kids have had a snack in the afternoon so they aren’t too hungry. It can be a fine balance working out snacking time so they are hungry enough to eat dinner but not so hungry that they are screaming down the house whilst you are trying to cook. I recommend trial and error here - I have found my girls needs a snack around 3-3.30pm to have for a 5.30pm dinner.
Have an activity for the kids so you can cook and set the table.
Include something that you know each child will eat every night - this means that in the worst case situation, they will at least eat something rather than nothing at all.
Don’t get extra things out if a child is not eating what is served - this creates bad habits and a lot of food waste. I love this Ellyn Satter quote: “She (meaning your child) is growing up to join you at your family table; you are not learning to eat off the high chair tray”. This is quite funny and reinforces that you need to serve a normal family meal, with some slight adaptations (at least one ‘liked’ food item) but you shouldn’t fuss to your child’s requests if you want to move forward.
If you choose to offer a dessert (healthy kind) make it consistent and not based on performance at a meal. E.g. Offer yoghurt or fruit every night after dinner no matter how much of the meal is eaten - this can be a safety net to ensure bellies aren’t going to sleep empty and also prevents sweeter dessert items being seen as reward or a treat, leading to poor eating behaviours later in life.
Have a few ‘easy’ meals in the house for those rushed nights E.g. A packet of Ravioli and pasta sauce. This is a much better option than take away and can be cooked quickly to allow a family meal to still be achieved.
Over the last few years we have adapted as a family to eat an early dinner together. I really enjoy this time to sit together as a family.
Kim Lawler is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Functional Nutritionist & Health Coach. She runs a private practice, Explore Nutrition, based on the Northern Beaches & North Shore. She works in many different areas but has a passion for women’s & family health.