Making time for mealtimes
Eating together is a great way for families to grow together. Research has shown that children who participate regularly in family mealtimes do better in school and enjoy closer relationships with parents and siblings
We have to eat to grow, and eating together is a great way for families to grow together. Research has shown that children who participate regularly in family mealtimes have healthier eating habits, do better in school, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, develop eating disorders or be depressed, and enjoy closer relationships with parents and siblings. That’s pretty impressive!
Sadly, in our stress-filled lives, juggling our work commitments with the kids’ extra-curricular activities often results in meals eaten on the hoof or wolfed down in front of the TV. But if we all made it a priority to stop and respect this family time together, both parents and children could have much to gain.
WAYS TO APPROACH
Dinner time is the perfect place to engage your children in conversation, so whenever possible, try to eat at the table, facing each other, away from the TV and other distractions. Go round the table, encouraging each member of the family to share something about their day. Ask them about their friends, their activities and interests. You may be surprised and encouraged by what you hear, and it’s a great way to strengthen bonds between older and younger siblings.
You can also use this time to tell your kids what you’ve been up to at work or in your hobbies. How many kids only hear about the negative side of Dad’s job and just see it as something that’s stressful and makes them tired and grumpy?
Mealtimes are also an ideal opportunity to open a discussion, where you can find out what your children know or feel about certain topics - and you have a chance to voice your opinion. For example, talking about the new series of Big Brother can start a debate on the pros and cons of reality TV, what it brings the contestants, how it might affect them, why we find it intriguing...
Or even discussing in an accessible way anything which has come up in the news, or exploring any political changes. Try and explore all the different sides of topics with your children, rather than giving them your point of view and telling them that it is ‘right’ – this will help them start to ask questions and learn how to make their own judgements.
Talking round the dinner table is the best way to gain your children’s trust. You can learn from and educate them, and as they start to open up to you more, you’ll be able to find out how they feel about things, which, let’s face it, is one of the hardest aspects of parenthood.
Make preparation part of the experience
Getting everyone involved in preparing a meal both helps you and reinforces the fact that meals are a family affair. Let your children come up with menu ideas, assist in the preparation, lay the table, dish up, clear away and wash up. These are chances to work together, share together and talk together that you may not otherwise experience. And in addition, your kids will feel they’ve contributed to the meal and enjoy the element of responsibility.
Try to keep the conversation light and fun - it shouldn’t be a time for whingeing about problems at work or scolding the kids. But in return, don’t let one individual’s bad behaviour disrupt this important time.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
Encourage your kids to try new foods. Even if they don’t like them the first time, leave it a while and then try again. Our taste buds do change.
As a parent, you will need to balance encouraging your child to try to eat what is on their plate, with not forcing them to eat something they really don’t like. After all, it is normal for everyone (adults and children alike) to have foods which they really find unpleasant.
It is up to you how far you want to go to accommodate the tastes of your family – whether you cook one meal that everyone eats, or do a couple of variations.
Indeed, also be aware that it may not always be helpful to have the view that your children ‘must’ finish their plate of food, and try to avoid using food as punishment or reward – for example, ‘eat all this or you won’t get a pudding’ or ‘you are a good boy for finishing your dinner, unlike your sister’. Some experts now think attaching these kinds of labels and rewards/punishment to food and eating could be linked to eating disorders later in life.
Be firm on this - by holding mealtimes up high and insisting on courtesy, consideration and good table manners, your children will start to understand the importance of this family time. The skills we learn about family living serve us throughout our lives. And although family life is rarely perfect, taking time to share food and conversation with those you care about will help your family grow closer and stronger.
Make sure that you also regard these mealtimes as important, your children will learn from the example you set.