Benefits of family meals
Family life is busy, and preparing and sharing family meals together takes time. But when you can manage it, regular family meals are worth the effort.
Whether it’s nightly dinners or a special Sunday lunch, family meals are perfect times 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, eating and family traditions 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 as everyone else. It can encourage picky eaters to try new foods.
And you can use family meals to model the behaviour you want to see when your family comes together. This is about learning to use spoons, forks and chopsticks for younger children. It’s also about things like taking turns to talk and listening while others share their news.
Children and teenagers who regularly eat meals with their families do better in lots of ways, from mental and physical health to school results.
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 phones turned off, can make this time even more special.
2. Reduce the rush
If you allow around 20-30 minutes for family meals, it 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.
If you have a toddler who finds it hard to sit still for 20 minutes, let him move around a bit. But it’s best to let your toddler eat only when he’s sitting at the table.
3. Get everyone involved
Involving your children in choosing and preparing family meals increases the chance that they’ll eat it. It can also encourage fussy eaters to try new food.
Even young children can help with preparing family meals. For example, they can wash fruit and vegies, or toss salads. They can also help by setting the table and even decorating it with flowers.
Older children and teenagers might enjoy finding new recipes and cooking meals for the family – for example, once a week or fortnight. This helps share the responsibility for meal preparation 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 sometimes children can find it hard to put their days into words. If this sounds like your child, it can help to ask your child questions that need more than a yes-or-no answer. 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 your 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 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 or teenage child’s friends
- create a meal with a theme – for example, food from a country with a language your child is learning at school.