For busy families, it’s much easier to grab something on the go or to let everyone fend for themselves when it comes to meals. After all, who has time to cook? And how do you find time to get everyone together?
There’s some compelling evidence that it’s important to make mealtimes a priority. Of course, there’s nothing saying you have to make everything from scratch or that you have to eat all three meals a day together to reap the benefits.
Benefits of family meals
Research shows eating meals together as a family can help children academically, emotionally, socially, and physically. Here are just a few of the benefits children may gain from eating together as a family:
- Better Physical Health. One study found that family meals at age six predicted greater levels of fitness at age 10. Children who ate regular meals with their families also drank fewer sugary soft drinks than other kids.
- Fewer Behavioural Problems. The same study found that kids who ate dinner with their parents at age six were less likely to be physically aggressive, oppositional, or delinquent at age 10.
- Healthier Eating Habits. Eating while sitting at the table has been associated with increased fruit and vegetable consumption as well as healthier portion sizes in children. And healthier eating habits during childhood are linked to healthier eating habits in adulthood.
- Improved Communication. Teens who eat dinner with their parents report better communication with their families. Studies have found that positive daily communication at the dinner table promotes closeness among family members.
- Fewer Unhealthy Weight-Control Behaviours. Children who eat meals with their families are less likely to develop eating disorders.
- Higher Academic Achievement. Regular family dinners may help children do better in school. Studies have found that eating together as a family is a better predictor of high achievement scores than time spent doing homework, playing sports, or doing art.
Mark it on the calendar
It’s easy to let after school activities, play dates, and other obligations get in the way of family meals. That’s why it’s important to put “family meal” on your schedule.
If you plan to eat dinner together three nights a week, mark it on the calendar, and let everyone know the plan. This way, it’s easier for them to turn down opportunities that come up.
Sometimes, in order to bring everyone together, someone may need to miss soccer practice. Or you might have to say no to a request to go to a friend’s birthday party. While that may upset your kids at times, putting the family meal in the schedule increases the chances that you’ll make it happen.
Make certain meals a high priority
Some research indicates that the more often you eat together as a family, the better. For example, one study found that adolescents who ate family meals together five to seven times per week were twice as likely to get As in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than two times a week.
But it’s unrealistic for many families to gather around the table every night. So it’s important to figure out what will work best for your family’s needs.
While much of the research emphasises the importance of eating dinner together, evening meals don’t work for everyone. Whether your work schedule or your kids’ activities make eating dinner together impossible, don’t worry.
You might decide breakfast is the best time for the whole family to get together for a meal. Or maybe you pick two nights a week that family dinners become a top priority, and you make every effort to get everyone there those two evenings.
Either way, decide on a realistic schedule that will help ensure that you’re eating together sometimes. Then, during those times, focus on the quality of your time together.
Get your kids involved in preparing, eating, and cleaning up after meals by assigning specific duties to each child. When they feel as though they are important members of the team, they’ll be more likely to value family dinners together.
Assign mealtime jobs
Jobs for younger kids:
- Clearing the table
- Setting the table
- Washing the table
- Putting dirty dishes in the sink
Jobs for older kids:
- Washing and cutting vegetables
- Doing the dishes
- Sanitizing the kitchen counters
- Serving food
- Helping with cooking
- Preparing salads and simple dishes
You might assign permanent duties, or you could rotate chores, depending on what works best for your family. But the goal is to make sure that everyone pitches in and feels like part of the team.
Plan special meals
Turn dinner into a family activity by allowing the kids to take turns picking out the menu. Perhaps everyone takes turns picking out what the family eats for dinner on Sunday evenings. Then that person can decide on the menu—and you might even get them involved in buying the groceries and reviewing the budget.
You can make it fun by having a special theme each time a child picks a meal. Perhaps you listen to salsa music as you eat Latin food. Or maybe you have pizza night every Friday where everyone makes their own miniature pizza.
The goal can be to make meals a time to create new memories while also bonding as a family. Your kids will remember these times forever so let them get creative and make things a little festive, even if it feels like an added chore.
Eating in front of the TV or scrolling through social media during a meal isn’t a good idea. Not only will you miss the opportunity to connect with your kids, but you’ll also model unhealthy habits for them.
Studies have found that young people consume more unhealthful food and beverages when eating meals in front of the TV. And the use of electronics during meals may be associated with overweight status.
Establish a screen-free rule for meals. Silence your phones, shut off the TV, and refrain from using your digital devices while your family eats.
Enjoy the conversation
Family meals are a time when kids will learn a lot. They’ll gain social skills, develop a relationship with food, and discover table manners. But you don’t need to overtly force these skills and ideas on them.
They’ll learn more by watching what you do than what you say. Make meals less about reprimanding, teaching, and scolding. Instead, focus on enjoying one another’s company.
Create pleasant conversation by asking everyone to share the best parts of their day. Or allow meal times to be completely unstructured times where everyone can laugh, share, and speak freely about whatever subjects they want.
The key is to make sure that meals are something that everyone looks forward to, rather than a chore that involves arguing and lecturing one another about proper nutrition and good behavior.
Focus on listening more than you speak. Invite quieter kids to share so that everyone has the opportunity to talk.