The importance of family meal times

Demanding that the family sit down and eat meals together can often be a battle, but is hugely important

When was the last time you and your whole family sat down together around a dining table to eat a meal cooked from scratch? Now if this sounds normal to some of you, you're fortunate. If however that sounds like a very strange concept, read on!

The speed at which we live today no longer allows for calm, slow eating habits. Most people work long hours, most mums are out working, single parents are struggling to do everything that a couple would normally do, there are lots of fast food opportunities, eating out of the home is now on the increase (30% of our food is now eaten out of the home) and take-away meals and snack food are all that some children know.

Food is served at different times to accommodate members of the family with different lifestyle behaviours, and all too often food is eaten on the lap in front of the television. Shockingly, quite often we hear that a child eats alone in his/her bedroom in front of the computer. Life is now so fast-moving that we have created a more convenient system of purchasing ready made processed food and heating it up in the microwave and then wolfing it down in five minutes in front of the television.

Even if the intention is to eat together as a family, timing can change the whole event because supper time only occurs within such a small time frame. For example, one child might be enjoying some extra-curricular school activity and then need picking up around supper time, disturbing an evening meal routine with two people away from the table.

Growing up in London in the early 50’s and 60’s, every evening around the same time, one of us would be asked to set the table, then we’d be asked to go and wash our hands, before sitting down to the meal which my mother had cooked. This was the time of day when we would talk about our day at school and my parents would talk about their day at work. It was a social event and lots of good information was debated around the dinner table.

One of modern Britain’s biggest challenges relates to the health of the nation and the link it has with our daily food intake. Not only has family structure changed, but the food we eat, where we eat it, and with whom we eat it with has also changed at a similar pace. Combine all these trends and it becomes evident why our children have such poor eating behaviours today. Not only is nutritional intake a concern, but also food preparation methods, cost of food, perceived healthiness of the food, taste, amount and of course whether or not the food eaten is fresh and correctly cooked and served.

The family environment is one of the strongest determinants of dietary behaviour - expressed through a parent’s belief in what food is good or bad for a child. Parents also influence a child’s exposure to certain foods as well as where the food is eaten, i.e. at the table, or in front of the television.

A family environment is also the first port of call on learning to socialise with others, as well as understanding dietary disciplines such as not eating too fast, waiting for others to finish before leaving the table, and simple things like not speaking with a mouth full of food. Parent’s likes and dislikes of a certain food will also influence a child’s own likes and dislikes, and this will have a significant impact on the child’s taste buds in later life. But if there are no family meals, and everyone is eating alone in their rooms or in front of the television, how do children learn these important dietary habits? The truth is, they don’t.

Studies have shown that children who sit down to eat with their families, sharing good home cooked food, eat a lot more healthily and also eat more vegetables. From an emotional standpoint, children who frequently eat with their families have better results at school, are less depressed and less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana than children who ate with their families less than twice a week (Carson, 2006).

Children need routines in their lives, they actually thrive on routines which makes them feel secure and loved. Regular meal times all together (regardless of whether you are eating a pizza or a freshly cooked roast dinner) give children the opportunity to discuss their little problems with family members; it relaxes them and encourages them to unwind from their day. They become better friends with their siblings and learn to respect others around the table. Talking to your children over dinner is the best way of gaining their trust. Another important reason to get everyone around the table for a meal is that there is less likelihood that your child will have to deal with eating disorders, like anorexia. Children learn good eating habits from their parents at a very young age. Be a role model for them – they need your input!

If you are not already enjoying family meals, here are some tips on getting started:

• Turn off the television before the meal starts. Never eat and watch television.
• Build up slowly if you are not already regularly eating together, once a week for a while and then every other day, and then every day. Be flexible, some days it may not be possible for everyone to be there.
• Keep the meals healthy but simple, so that you don’t run out of time with too much cooking.
• Teach them good table manners - actions always speak louder than words. They will learn to respect others around the table and take this with them when they leave the house.
• Make one of your weekly meals something that the children usually see as a treat (i.e. pizza), but still eat this at the table as a family. Show them that it doesn’t matter what the food is, you still all want to eat together.
• Invite your children’s friends over for a family meal. Show the children that their friends are also invited to the table and that having friends over is not always about getting a take-away to eat in front of the television.
• Make family meal times enjoyable. Don’t talk about their school report over dinner – keep the conversation jolly!
• Finally, ask the children to set the table, wash their hands and come when you call them!

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