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:
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:
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.