Family Meals: Who, What, Where, When, & WhyMay 12, 2020
Growing-up, my family always ate meals together. Truth be told, mealtimes were pretty stressful in my house, as my parents were very strict about table manners. Nevertheless, it was a time where I remember coming together, sharing food, and communicating. Looking back, some of the things my parents did were not in-line with what I would recommend as a Feeding Therapist. We were expected to always finish our plates and we were forced to eat foods that we didn’t like. My parents were doing their best, but now, through research, we know better. Studies have demonstrated that kids eat and grow better when they decide how much to eat and follow their own hunger and satiety cues. We also know that forcing or bribing kids to eat foods they don’t like doesn’t work; it actually reduces their willingness to eat the food. As an adult, I avoid most of the foods that I was forced to eat as a child (e.g. kidney beans…ewwww!) Pushing kids to eat or “try” a food doesn’t inspire them to like the food as an adult. I think many of us can relate.
Over the past three decades, family meals have declined by more than 30% and this number increases as children become older. The quality of the experience of the family table has also changed with the increase in distractions such as television and smartphones. Most parents express they wish they had more family meals but report barriers to family meals including work schedules, kids’ activities, and loss of routine.
I have been a Feeding Therapist for over 20 years, and I have learned a great deal through having the privilege of participating in family meals with many of my clients. Working in my clients’ homes has provided me with great perspective on the family meal experience. I have learned about different foods, cultures, traditions, and mealtime routines. I grew up eating meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Through my work as a home-based feeding therapist, I have learned about foods like congee, dal, roti, challah, steamed bun, marrow, borscht, steamed egg, chapati, and string hoppers. It’s been a wonderful education.
As a mother of two, family-meals have always been practiced in our home. Now that my kids are teenagers with busy lives, we still come together every day at dinner time. Family meals have provided me with a small window of opportunity to check in on my kids’ well-being, assess their mood, laugh, and talk about their day or emotions. I learn more about what’s going on with my kids during family meals than at any other time.
WHAT should a family meal look like?
There is no “right” way to do a family meal. Family meals and traditions and practices around food and eating come in many shapes and sizes. As a clinician, it’s essential that I respect and embrace each family’s unique and special way of coming together and having a meal:
- Some of the families I work with practice family-style serving where all of the dishes are placed in the centre of the table and everyone fills and re-fills their plate from shared bowls.
- Other families eat on the floor and use their hands instead of utensils.
- My family always ate dinner around 5-6pm. Many of the families I work with enjoy their family meal between 9-10pm.
- In some cultures, children are hand-fed by parents up to a much later age than we would in western society. Eating independence is not necessarily an appropriate goal.
- Some families don’t believe in letting children eat cold foods, as it will make them ill; they warm all of their foods including water and yogurt.
As a Feeding Therapist, it would be inappropriate and insensitive for me to recommend a fork or spoon to family that uses chopsticks or traditionally eats with their hands. When helping families plan their menu, I aim to include foods that they have in their home and enjoy regularly as a family. Similarly, grilled cheese or macaroni would not be an appropriate food recommendation for a family that enjoys and embraces traditional Indian dishes in their home.
Regardless of culture, time of day, or eating location, family meals are important for a child’s feeding development. Often families tell me that they are not able to practice family meals due to busy schedules and/or eating at different times than their children.
WHY should we eat as family? Multiple research studies have demonstrated the benefits to children who have family meals:
- Better academic performance
- Language development is enhanced
- More intake of fruits and vegetables
- More healthy dietary patterns and intake of vitamins and micro-nutrients
- Less picky eating
- Higher self-esteem
- Greater sense of resilience
- Lower risk of substance abuse as teens
- Lower risk of depression and other mental health issues
- Lower likely of developing eating disorders
- Lower rates of obesity
6 Small Steps Toward Introducing Family Meals:
- WHO? A family meal doesn’t need to include every family member. Your child should be eating with someone in the family, not alone. It could be mother-child, child-sibling, child-father. Ideally, the entire family would come together at mealtimes; however, if this isn't always possible, then try to ensure that your child is eating with family member.
- If the idea of introducing family meals feels overwhelming, try starting with just one meal per day. Maybe breakfast would work? Or a snack time with your child.
- Start with weekends: You may have a busy work schedule where both parents are out of the home during the day and not arriving until after the kids have eaten. If this is the case, try introducing family meals on the weekend.
- WHEN? As I said, many families eat on different schedules due to their customs or daily schedule. It’s fine for families to eat later in the evening if this works best for them; however, it’s important to stick to a schedule with approximately 3 hours between meals so your child has appetite at mealtimes. If you eat very late and your child eats earlier, you can try to gradually adjust your schedule to move your mealtimes closer together.
- Start with just 10-15 minutes: You may enjoy sitting at the table and enjoying a long, leisurely meal; however, your child may have a hard time sitting for a long time. If this is the case, just have your child join you for the first portion of the meal.
- WHERE? A family should eat wherever they want, in a way that matches their culture, beliefs, and traditions. Whether it’s the kitchen table, a formal dining room, the floor, the backyard, or a picnic in the park, the important part is to come together to eat.
Most of all, try to enjoy mealtimes with your kids and not pressure them to eat. Talk, listen to music, share stories, laugh, and model enjoyment of your own food. In time your child will learn to eat and enjoy the foods that your family eats.
The family table is one of the places where children can observe their parents communicate, problem solve, and connect. It’s an opportunity to share our day and emotions. More family conversation occurs during mealtime than during any other activity, including playing with toys and reading books. Family meals provide children with a sense of tradition and structure. They allow kids to know what to expect and gives parents a chance to check in on their child’s mood and emotional well-being. Children that have family meals do better nutritionally, psychologically, socially, and emotionally. As a Feeding Therapist and a Mom, I urge you give family meals a try.
- Benefits of Family Dinners: The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/about-us/benefits-of-family-dinners/
- The Benefits of the Family Table: The American College of Pediatricians: https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-benefits-of-the-family-table
- The Power of a Family Meal: Harvard University: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/family-meals-healthy-eating/
- The most important thing you can do with you kids? Eat dinner with them: Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/12/the-most-important-thing-you-can-do-with-your-kids-eat-dinner-with-them/
- Family Meals are Essential: The Ellyn Satter Institute: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus/4-family-meals-are-essential/
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