The Power of Family Meals
Children who take part in family meals display less delinquency, greater academic achievement, improved psychological wellbeing, more positive family interactions and eat healthier foods.
Eating meals together as a family has wonderful benefits. Frequent regular family meals (3–7 times a week) reflect a sense of family connection and priorities. It says, “We are important!”
Not a lot is known about exactly why family meals create benefits, but it is suggested that it might be due to the empathy, family cohesion, family attitudes and communication skills modelled or displayed during these times. The time together also generates feelings of closeness and comfort, providing a unique context to connect with your child.
Although family meal time on its own is not a magic bullet for emotional health, evidence suggests that children who take part in family meals display less delinquency, greater academic achievement, improved psychological wellbeing, more positive family interactions and eat healthier foods (1).
Set a goal to have a family meal at least three times per week, even if some members can’t be there occasionally, due to work, sport or other activities. When you still have little ones, don’t fret too much about family dinners. I confess that family dinners that included my husband only became more regular as my children got a little older, (because at 4 years old my children were beginning to gnaw on the table leg if I expected them wait past 5pm).
A family meal also doesn’t need to be a formal affair. In the early years it could be lunch at the kitchen bench, a sandwich on your lap, an afternoon tea outside on the patio, or a Sunday picnic in the garden. Without screens and the focus being on the people present, with children and adults all included in the conversation for a certain (age appropriate) period of time. The meal habit communicates that time together is important. It’s OK if some children prefer to just listen, be present and don’t want to chat every time. It is the ‘being together’ that counts.
Another goal might be to include both children and adults at the table, or in a big circle of chairs, when family friends are over for a meal. This was demonstrated to me by friends who always pull together their two odd tables when people are over (waves to Kerrie). They ensure that adults and children sit at meals together. Children are included in the conversation, get to watch how other families interact and also gain the benefit of incidental mentoring by being part of adults’ discussions. Children don’t need to sit at the table for the entire social event, but are expected to stay for the duration of the meal.
Even when it’s mayhem
It’s normal to have the turning-up-of-noses at food, bickering or irritability some days -> did I mention the turning-up-of-noses? Families aren’t robots. These instances help parents to model saying sorry, how to empathise with the person who has had a bad day, to teach respectful communication and gratitude.
Some meal time conversation starter ideas, to do occasionally:
- “List one good thing and one not very good thing that happened in your day.” It is vital that adults share some of their struggles as teens, in particular, often imagine that adults don’t have inner conflict.
- “Could we think of ways that we might help Dad deal with that situation at work?” Let children help you brainstorm. Keep it age appropriate and don’t scoff at their suggestions.
- “How did [that issue] make you feel today?”
- “What did you enjoy most about your sport/flute/event this week?”
- “Who is someone you are worried about at the moment?”
- (insert your own here)
How can you tweak your weekly routine to add in a family meal or two?
Adapted from Conversation #6 in Collett’s book, THEY’LL be OKAY: 15 Conversations to Help Your Child Through Troubled Times (Hachette, 2019). Another version printed at Mums At the Table.