By Raising Children Network
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Family members gathering over food Peters

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Children and teenagers who regularly eat meals with their families do better in lots of ways, from mental and physical health to school results.
Family life is so busy – work, after-school activities, homework and more. Regular family meals give everybody a chance to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Here’s how to get the most out of your family meals.

Benefits of family meals

Family life often comes with a busy schedule. It isn’t always easy to put a meal on the table, let alone get the whole family to sit down together to enjoy it. But a regular family mealtime is worth the effort.

Whether it’s a nightly dinner or a special Sunday lunch, sharing regular family meals gives everyone a chance to catch up, connect and communicate with each other. This can be especially important for busy older children and teenagers.

Your child can also learn a lot about food and eating by watching what you do at mealtimes.

For example, eating with the rest of the family helps younger children learn to eat the same healthy food that the rest of your family eats. Watching the family eat a range of foods can encourage picky eaters to try new foods.

Family meals are also a chance to show children how to use spoons, forks, chopsticks and so on.

And your children see you modelling good eating habits as well as the behaviour you want at the table. This isn’t just about table manners. For example, family meals can also help your child learn to communicate, as he takes turns talking and listening.

Six ways to make family meals enjoyable

1. Set aside regular times to eat together
When you put these times in your weekly schedule, you’re all more likely to be there. Having your meal at a table, with the television and phone turned off, can make this time even more special.

Children can help by setting the table and even decorating it with flowers from the garden or placemats.  

2. Reduce the rush
Allowing around half an hour for the family meal gives your children plenty of time to eat. They’ll have the chance to try new foods and develop good eating habits. This also gives you time to relax, chat and enjoy your family.

3. Get everyone involved
Involving your family in choosing and preparing the meal increases the chance that they’ll eat it. It can also help fussy eaters to try new food.

Older children and teenagers might enjoy choosing and cooking a meal for the family – for example, once a week or fortnight. This helps share the responsibility for preparing a meal and gives your child the chance to learn to cook.

4. Use family meals as a chance to talk
Family meals can be a great way to keep up with what everyone is doing. But many parents know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a grunt or a ‘dunno’ when they ask a question. If this sounds like you and your child, using questions that need more than a yes-or-no answer can help. For example, ‘Tell me one great thing that happened at school today’. 

Another idea might be for everyone to take turns sharing something good and bad about their day. This way your child won’t feel like she’s being put on the spot.

But if your child really doesn’t want to talk, it’s best not to push too hard or bring up touchy subjects. It’s good for your child just to be with the family and listen to other people talking. The idea is to make mealtimes enjoyable and social.

5. Reward good behaviour
When your younger children are eating nicely, using good manners and trying different foods, try to reward them with some descriptive praise. Tell them what they’re doing well. You might even want to use a reward chart to reward behaviour like trying every food on the plate or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Avoid using food as punishment or bribes. For example, it isn’t a good idea to say, ‘If you eat your broccoli, you can have some ice-cream for dessert’. This can make your child more interested in treats than healthy foods. 

6. Be creative with mealtimes
When you have the time and opportunity, having some fun with mealtimes can give the whole family something to look forward to. For example, on a weekend you might:

  • make healthy pancakes for breakfast
  • have a picnic at the park, in your backyard or on the lounge room floor
  • invite a special guest over for dinner, like a friend, grandparent or neighbour. This can also be a great way of getting to know your older child’s or teenager’s friends
  • create a meal with a theme – for example, food from a country with a language your child is learning at school.
  • Last updated or reviewed 03-07-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Dr Emma Little, developmental and educational psychologist.