Behaviour & Emotions Home & Food

Food for thought: Why mealtimes matter

Parenting Place family mealtimes

When it’s all working well and the whānau are gathered around the table chatting happily, the food is a hit with all diners and young and old are remembering their manners, you may wonder why you don’t all eat together more often.

On the other hand, if attempts to sit around the table as a family have been less than charming at your place, you might be wondering if such a scene is even possible outside of the Disney channel. Well, we'd like to suggest that successful family mealtimes are not only possible, but also incredibly meaningful. And we’d agree – they might take some effort!

Mealtimes matter and there is a list of golden benefits for eating together as a family. Research shows that children who eat meals with their family -

• Learn to communicate better

• Feel safe and part of the family

• Do better at school

• Eat better and are less likely to become overweight

• Are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs

Mealtimes matter and there is a list of golden benefits for eating together as a family.

Of course, it’s not always easy – there are meetings and sports practices competing with dinner and family time. There’s also tiredness, challenging food preferences, and disappointment when you can’t sit in the seat you’d hoped for or your sister got your favourite blue cup. A simple family meal can actually be quite complex.

But honestly, this is the place where relationships are strengthened and memories are made. Good memories too – not just recollections of Dad’s inedible mashed potato experiment or that time Mum left the table to eat dinner outside because tomato sauce got splattered onto the ceiling fan.

What else is on the menu?

There are so many good things to be gained at the family meal table. Let’s look closer at just a few of those benefits:

Communication and well-being

Conversations during the meal provide opportunities for the family to bond, plan, connect and learn from one another. It’s a chance to share information and news of the day, as well as give extra attention to your children and teens. Family meals foster a sense of identity and belonging, with generous servings of security, love and warmth.

Marvellous manners

Family mealtimes are the perfect opportunity to practise table manners, meal etiquette and social skills. (However, we need to resist the temptation to turn meals into a training bootcamp. Keep the mood light, relaxed and loving, leading by example rather than instructing and criticising.)

New possibilities

While every whānau has their favourites (you had my family at ‘lasagne’), mealtimes are obviously a good place to introduce some new cuisine. Add some different ingredients alongside your classics. Remember that it can take 8-10 exposures to a new food before it is accepted, so be patient. Trying a new food is like starting a new hobby – it expands your child’s knowledge, experience and skill. (And us grown-ups need to lead by example when it comes to eating a wide variety too.)

Taco Tuesday

So, how do we do this? Eating together as a family may take some creative scheduling. Dinner with everyone may not be possible every night, but book it in for the evenings when you are all at home. On busy nights, maybe you could get together for dessert. Or maybe a rhythm of breakfast together every Wednesday and Friday will work for your family, and then aim for a weekend ritual that features four or more meals all together.

Children love the fact that something is planned so get some sort of family calendar up on the fridge and clearly schedule meals together. Your children may not be able to articulate it, but they will love the fact that family time has been prioritised.

Candles, flowers and placemats may seem a bit much, but little extras add to the ritual of family mealtimes, which in turn enhances the connection value.

Come and get it

Finally, the key to mealtime success is just the right amount of formality – whatever you’re eating. (Honestly – whether it's toast and baked beans or a lavish roast that took you all afternoon, if you eat it together it's powerful moment.)

  • Set the table – candles, flowers and placemats may seem a bit much, but little extras add to the ritual of family mealtimes, which in turn enhances the connection value.

  • Wait for everyone to get to the table and start the meal together.

  • Say thanks – to God or to the cook.

  • Turn off the tech, and yes – that means phones aren’t invited.

  • Have a couple of good conversation starters up your sleeve or try making a round of highs and lows a regular fixture. “What was the best part of your day and what was the least fun or interesting?” Whoever is talking has the salt shaker in front of them.

  • Take a no stress/no drama approach to mealtimes to ease the pressure and ultimately enhance the atmosphere.

  • Allow at least 20 minutes for a family mealtime – even if kids are finished, encourage them to stay and be involved in conversation. For bonus points, introduce a phrase that your family uses to signify the end of the meal: Thank you for the food, may I leave the table?/That was the most delicious meal I’ve ever tasted/I’ll be forever grateful for your culinary brilliance.

Eating together as a family is worth the effort (and patience!). Simply sitting around the table over a meal together can help ease day-to-day conflicts, as well as establish traditions and memories that will last a lifetime. I still remember what happened around our family table, and most importantly – I can remember how I felt.

If your mealtimes are not going well at the moment, don’t give up. Once children realise that this is the way things are going, they will settle into the new routines and soon be appreciating the focus on family time.

Authors

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 20 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.


Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.


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