Sharing meals around the dining table can have far-reaching benefits, especially for our children
The importance of family meals.
NOTHING strengthens that familial bond quite like sharing a meal. We eat together to celebrate good times, to get over hard times and to build memories.
I have long believed that happiness comes not just from eating well but also eating together. Whether it’s that tier of wedding cake served at a first baby’s christening, a birthday feast, or a sandwich and a cup of tea after a funeral, eating together is an essential part of every milestone of our lives.
THE HEALTHY OPTION
There is nothing new in the thinking that children eat better at the family dinner table.
A US study in 2000 led by Harvard Medical School’s Dr Matthew Gillman found children who had dinner with their families ate more fruit and veg, and less sugary drinks and fried food.
Other research has shown that children, over time, are more accepting of new food choices when they are presented at the dinner table. Another crucial part of getting younger children to eat more fruit and veg is for you to eat and enjoy the same wholesome ingredients in front of them.
When it comes to teaching your kids good eating habits, it’s important to teach them to say “no” to bad food choices at the dinner table. You can also encourage them to eat slowly and mindfully, so they know when they are full and when to stop.
Research by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) across three-quarters of the world’s countries found that kids who ate with their family were less likely to play truant or be obese.
And, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week tend to have fewer issues with drugs and alcohol abuse, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than those who eat dinner with their family less often.
Conversely, eating alone can be a factor in alienation, reducing children’s understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour, and have an impact on their verbal reasoning and vocabulary.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
Eating as a family at least five times a week seems to be the ideal minimum. This means eating home-cooked food at a table with all immediate family members present, according to a report into Australian teenagers’ attitudes to the family meal.
In a 2010 survey of adolescents in Western Australia, 58 per cent described family mealtimes as “very important” and 38 per cent described them as “quite important” showing that here, too, the much-reported demise of the family meal might be a bit of a furphy.
However, while four out of five meals eaten are home-cooked, 36 per cent of our meals are still eaten on the couch in front of the telly. While I might frown at this normally, may I suggest this is an excellent decision if you are eating dinner at 7.30pm, Sunday to Thursday, from early May onwards.
EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS
An increase in children’s extracurricular activities plus parents’ longer working hours have all impacted on the ability for families to eat together.
But fear not. CASA found that while 20 per cent of kids who eat with their family less than three times a week get Cs or lower, this dropped to 9 per cent for teens who eat family meals more regularly.
Plus a paper tabled at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria in 2014 showed that children were 40 per cent more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week. This is because meals eaten outside the home, like fast food, tend to be higher in fat, salt, and calories.
SET THE TABLE RULES
An increasing body of research is suggesting that giving kids chores to do can have long-reaching, positive impacts. Children who have to do chores are found to have better selfesteem, learn to deal with frustrations better, are more responsible and even do better at school.
A study from the University of Minnesota showed children who were given chores at a young age (three to four) grew up to be more successful at work and less likely to use drugs.
Performing these tasks together as a family unit encourages cohesion. Just as important, though, is conversation. Remove the television, phones and other devices from the family meal. Encourage children to share their views and make sure that you really listen to them.
I don’t believe anyone should leave the table without asking, or before everyone has finished. This isn’t just about teaching manners. It’s about respect and the socialisation of your children. So everyone who eats (bar the cook) should contribute to setting the table, clearing and washing up.
In my view, this also helps to anchor the idea that a family meal should be a truly shared experience.
BREAKING BREAD Eating together helps families bond.