Family meal

Family meals are good for minds, bodies, and relationships

In Eat well, Nutrition education by RebeccaLeave a Comment

Family meal times can do wonders for children and parents alike. Heck, even other ‘family units’ (housemates, couples, you and your cats) can benefit from spending meal times together. Infants, children and teenagers have a lot to gain from family meal times, not only in a nutritional sense but from a broader social and emotional perspective too.

How family meals help babies

For the littlest humans, a big part of learning to eat food is through observation. By eating meals with your bubs, they will build an interest in what you’re doing and will become more aware of solid foods and eating. This is an important step in progressing to solid foods. Infants will learn important skills such as self-feeding, coordination, chewing, and exploring foods by watching you – so make sure they have ample opportunity!

How family meals help toddlers and children

Many habits we develop in childhood stay with us throughout adulthood, so this really is an important time to establish positive food behaviours. Family meals provide parents with daily opportunities to model healthy behaviours such as curiosity and fun (not fuss) with food. Parents and children alike can practice mindfulness at meal times by eating according to cues of hunger and fullness. [1]

Preparing and sharing family meals helps children to become more curious about different foods. Younger children might be able to help by sorting, carrying, and passing foods. Child-safe knives and peelers are a great next-step – they can be used by children as young as two years old. Primary school aged children, with appropriate supervision and learning, can prepare family meals. Not only is cooking a lifelong skill, but it helps children to appreciate food, how we eat, and what we eat. [1]

Meal times also present opportunities to help children learn important social skills, sharing responsibility (e.g. setting the table, cleaning up), and manners. [2] Mealtime conversations can help children expand their vocabulary [1] and improve conversational skills, which can help kids academically, too [2].

How family meals help teenagers

Regular family meals may be protective for many nutrition-related issues during childhood and adolescence. According to a very large study [3] in 2011, family meals increase the odds of eating healthy foods, and reduce the odds of being overweight, eating unhealthy foods, and displaying disordered eating behaviours. Teens themselves believe that they would eat more healthily if they ate with their family [4] and saw family connection as an important reason to have family meals [2].

Having the whole family eat together may reduce the likelihood of skipped meals, which can be another poor eating behaviour with teenagers. Teens are dealing with rapid physical growth and cognitive development, both of which require energy and nutrients. In addition, skipping meals makes it hard for teens to get the nutrition they need for physical activity and to maintain alertness throughout the day. Skipped meals may also lead to spontaneous unhealthy food choices, such as high-sugar / high-fat / low-nutrient convenience foods.

How family meals help adults

Us grown-ups also have a lot to gain from family meal times, too. It can be a time to stop and disconnect from our devices and our worries and reconnect with our loved ones instead. Turning off the TV and putting away the phone means we can actively listen to our partner and children. Take this time to check in, listen, and be heard.

Family meals don’t have to only happen when meals are deemed “healthy enough”. All meals can be family meal times, because there’s a lot more to meals than nutrition. It’s an opportunity to pay attention to each other, and to our food, no matter what that food is [5].

“Adjust your attitude: A meal is when you all sit facing each other and share the same food.” – Ellyn Satter

Further reading

Kids Dig Food is a brilliant source of positive, practical advice for childhood nutrition. They have great articles on starting solids, fussy eating, mindfulness with food, and much more.

Foost is another great source of family and child nutrition information, aimed at creating a more relaxed, simple and fun approach to food.

Ellyn Satter Institute is the ‘guru’ of the family mealtime experience. The Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a must-read for all parents who want to achieve a joyful, struggle-free, healthful family meal experience.

References

[1] Kids Dig Food. Eating together – make family meals happen.  [2] Martin-Biggers J, Spaccarotella K, Berhaupt-Glickstein A, Hongu N, Worobey J, Byrd-Bredbenner C. Come and Get It! A Discussion of Family Mealtime Literature and Factors Affecting Obesity Risk. Advances in Nutrition. 2014;5(3):235-247. doi:10.3945/an.113.005116. [3] Hammons, A., & Fiese, B. (2011). Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics, 127(6), e1565. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1440 [4] Neumark-Sztainer, Story M, Ackard D, Moe J, Perry C. The “family meal”: views of adolescents. J Nutr Educ. 2000;32(6):329–334 [5] Ellyn Satter Institute. Not all family meals are perfect; eat together anyway.

Image: Photo by Jaco Pretorius on Unsplash