Many, if not most, parents worry about their children’s diet. Often we worry that they eat too much junk food and not enough vegetables. We rarely worry about ‘how’ we feed our children. Does it make any difference if they eat in front of the TV? Or by themselves because parents working long hours eat later in the evening?
Nowadays, it’s normal for children to eat their evening meal at a different time from adults. Not only is it sad to miss that family-together time, but children who do eat a family meal, reap lots of benefits.
Research has shown that children who benefit from a family meal
- Are more likely to eat healthier food
- Have a decreased risk of being overweight or obesity
- Perform better at school
- Have less high risk behaviour in their teenage years
Children learn from what they see and they learn by copying. They learn how to behave and how to eat. When they see their parents enjoying a healthy salad, they’ll learn to enjoy a salad. OK, so that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like you sit down with your 2 year old and suddenly they’re eating lettuce with garlic croutons. Overtime, they will join in. Or at least try most things.
We recently made a ‘fish break through’ with my ‘fish resistant’ 6 year old. I’m sure it was just seeing us all enjoying eating them together over the years. Eventually he felt ready to join in. The power of the family meal.
Fussy eating and toddlers are words that go hand in hand. Suddenly they stop eating all vegetables and only eat plain pasta. Think family meals! It’s not a magic cure but by seeing everyone else eat happily, they will eventually join in. (Whispers, and once I even got my toddler to try celery!)
The benefits aren’t just about healthy eating. A family meal is a safe place to communicate. A place to learn communication skills, how to have a conversation and behave together. A place to talk and get advice. To pass on family traditions. It does’t have to be a huge tradition. For our birthdays we’re allowed to choose our favourite meal and we have another ‘party meal’ with grandparents. Dante always chooses mussels and Galen chooses meat balls. You can make your own family traditions. In short, family meals should be fun.
Family meals are fun but they can be challenging, especially with young children.
- Get everything ready before hand. The longer kids have to wait, the more fuss they make. (They start drumming on the table, then the knives and forks join in and before you know it they’re shouting and screaming.)
- Make sure dinner is the right temperature. This is so important, especially for little ones. There’s nothing worse than a tiny person who’s really hungry being presented with a meal that’s too hot. If you have to, let it sit on the side for a few minutes to cool down.
- Try the ‘cucumber quiz’. If dinner is a little delayed, I cut up a cucumber and start a quiz. Simple questions, one for each child, with a reward of a piece of cucumber for a ‘right’ answer. (What is your favourite colour?) Normally cucumber sits forgotten on the side of the plate. At ‘cucumber quiz’ time, they’re fighting over it!
- Make it fun. Tell stories, make up activities, invite friends.
I know it can be difficult to make time to eat together, but it’s so important. If you can’t eat together during the week, make a special effort to do so at the weekend. If your partner doesn’t get in until late, you can still sit down and eat something with the kids, even if you eat again later on.
Remember…family meals equal healthier eating, less likely to be overweight, better school performance and less risk taking behaviour in adolescence. Who would have thought it just from sitting down and eating together?