It’s lovely to sit down to a meal with our kids – in an ideal world the conversation flows, everyone likes all the food on their plates, and we all have plenty of time. However, life isn’t always ideal. There are many reasons why it can be difficult to sit down to a meal as a family, from kids’ early bedtimes to parents’ late work schedules, and from toddler table tantrums to finding foods you all enjoy. Some evenings it can certainly be tempting to get kids’ dinner done early and then flop onto the couch with a ready meal and the remote control (and maybe a glass of wine). And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that…some of the time. However there are also many benefits to parents or carers and children eating together, so it really is worth making the effort.
I’ll look at some ways to make it easier and even more enjoyable to eat with your toddlers and also as children get older. But first, here are some of the reasons it’s great to eat together.
Why is eating with children a good thing?
It’s hard to fit into one newsletter article just how great the benefits of meals together can be – and there’s a lot of research to back this up. So I’m going to break it down a little, into how they can benefit children’s brains, bodies and spirits.
I will mention older children as well as younger ones. You may well be thinking that it’s hard enough to get toddlers to sit at the table, let alone the teens they will become. But this is yet another benefit of eating with your little ones. Having meals with your younger children increases the chance they’ll still be sitting around the dinner chatting to you 10 or 15 years later.
Good for the brain
There’s no better place for a conversation than around a delicious meal, and there’s also no doubt that conversation is a brain-booster for young children. Researchers have looked at this and found that meal-time chatter helped boost young children’s vocabulary even more than reading books together.
At Mother Duck centres, the educators sit with children and join the conversation during lunchtimes. While they may partly by keeping the conversation flowing between the little ones, it also presents a great opportunity to stimulate a discussion about what’s on their plates. This might range from a chat about food textures, colours and flavours, through to how the foods can benefit growing bodies and brains. It can even provide a tasty learning opportunity when, for example, festive foods are served to celebrate events children are learning about, such as Chinese New Year, Diwali, Eid and Christmas.
Good for the body
It’s been well-established by research that dining with their family can lead children towards a more nutritious way of eating. Children who sit down to family meals tend to eat more fruit and vegetables and thus also consume more vitamins. My guess is that this is at least partly because meals with parents can also be a great time to encourage fussy eaters to try new foods, such as vegetables. They’re more likely to try something when everyone else is enjoying it. That also applies to meals at childcare centres, when children may try a food they don’t eat at home because they see that their friends like it.
Good for the spirit
Most of the research into the mental health benefits of family meals has been carried out with older children. It seems they provide a great time for parents and carers to be present with their children for support and maybe for guidance. For example, a New Zealand study found that the more frequent the family meals, the more positive the mood of adolescents. What a shame they didn’t look at whether this worked for their parents as well!
Ways to make family meals easier
It can be difficult to find mealtimes that suit everyone’s busy lifestyles. While it may not be possible to manage it every day, maybe there would be at least a couple of meals a week when you can slow down and really focus on a meal together.
Making some meals screen-free, especially if you often eat in front of the television, allows a chance to touch base with each other. And after a while, you may be able to establish some traditions that help to attract everyone to the table. Here are a few that work well with my family:
- Candles for special meals, or even just a nice weekend dinner. Of course, young children will need to be supervised, or use battery-operated tealights for a safer alternative.
- Everyone lists what has made them happy or sad, or their high and low point, of the day. This game was known as Roses and Thorns when President Obama’s family played it at the White House in the USA.
- Making dishes from cooking programmes or books the family enjoys. It could even be Daddy Pig’s pancakes from Peppa Pig or Krabby Patty burgers from Spongebob Squarepants!
Involve the kids in planning meals, if possible – this is a great way to encourage fussy youngsters to taste the foods on offer. Smaller children can help design the menu or nominate some favourite foods, while older ones can help with cooking or even prepare some of the food themselves. Homemade ‘takeaways’ make an appealing choice for kids, and will usually be healthier and cheaper than bought versions – these might include foods such as burgers, pizza and fried rice. Even small children can help to set the table and serve themselves some of their own food, as they do at Mother Duck centres once they are old enough. They even wash up their plates and bowls* – a great way to learn responsibility and training for when they’re older.
One last point: Don’t worry about clean plates. Insisting that children eat everything on their plate can result in them eating more than their bodies need. Instead, suggest they listen to their body and stop eating when they are full. At Mother Duck centres the educators encourage children to come in from the playground for lunch when their tummies tell them to, which is another technique to help our kids learn to eat according to their appetites.
Finding the time…
In the ‘olden days,’ there was not much else to do at mealtimes apart from chatting to each other – little television, no computers, fewer activities for children, mums and grandmothers less likely to be working and dads and grandads possibly home earlier in the evenings. These days it can be hard to find the time and sometimes the energy. However, for the myriad of reasons above, it’s great to make the effort.
One thing that might make it easier is to remember that it doesn’t have to be the evening meal. If you count breakfasts and weekend lunches, or even morning and afternoon tea breaks, there are many chances to eat together. Weekends can be a good opportunity when you might be able to take a little more time to eat together. Maybe Sunday morning brunch could be a new family tradition.
It’s also worth noting that these occasions don’t have to include every family member – so long as a few family members are enjoying each other’s company there will be benefits. At least a few times a week it’s great to sit together and really connect – with the thought that this will help you all to still be connecting when your children are teens rather than toddlers.
A great resource
In the process of researching this article, I found a great website called The Family Dinner Project, from a group founded by a psychologist who is also a family therapist. It has a wealth of useful ideas to make family meals more fun. There is a range of family-friendly recipes (some ingredients could be tricky to find because it’s an American site), but I think the most useful areas are the suggestions for dinner table games and conversation starters. They’re great for when you’ve exhausted the ‘what did you do today?’ topic, or as a distraction from any grumbles about what’s on kids’ plates. Links to the site are listed below.
*Note that the children’s eating utensils are professionally washed at high temperature again after the children have washed them, to ensure they are sterile.
©Fiona Hinton 2022
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: Please note that this blog is for general information only, and should not be taken as a substitute for qualified medical advice. Please discuss medical issues with your child’s doctor before taking any action.
About Fiona: Fiona Hinton is a dietitian, but describes herself as a nutrition translator, taking the science of nutrition and translating it into foods we love to eat, to nourish both body and soul. She has over 20 years of experience as a dietitian, working in a wide range of areas from hospital wards to running her own private practice. Fiona has a special interest in children’s nutrition. As a mum of three school-age boys, she has first-hand experience of the issues associated with feeding young children, such as weaning and fussiness. Fiona specialises in real-life strategies and practical suggestions to convert nutrition advice into food kids will eat. Fiona has collaborated on several books, including one with best-selling children’s food writer Annabel Karmel, as well as training childcare staff in children’s nutrition.