Benefits of family meals
Family life can be 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 many 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. You can make this time more special by having your meal at a table with the television and phones switched off.
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 healthy 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, it’s OK if they sometimes need to move around in their chair or leave the table. But make sure your toddler eats only when they’re sitting at the table. Young children are more likely to choke if they eat while running around or playing.
3. Get everyone involved
Involving your children in choosing and preparing family meals increases the chance that they’ll eat it. It can also help you manage fussy eating and encourage children to try new food.
Even young children can help with preparing family meals. For example, they can wash fruit and vegetables, or toss salads. They can also help by setting the table.
Older children and teenagers might enjoy finding new recipes and cooking meals for the family – for example, once a week or fortnight. This shares 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 they’re 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. Focus on enjoying food and eating together
If you keep mealtime conversations neutral and avoid talking about how much or what food is being eaten, it can reduce the pressure some children feel to eat. This can make mealtimes more relaxed and enjoyable.
It’s best to avoid saying things like, ‘Wow, well done, you’re eating so much’ or ‘Look at your sister. She’s eating more than you.’ And 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, because it sounds like the broccoli is a chore and the ice-cream is a reward.
If you want to praise your child for their effort at the table, focus instead on good manners – for example, ‘I can see how hard you’re trying to sit still at the table today’.
6. Be creative with mealtimes
When you have the time and opportunity, being creative and having fun with mealtimes can give the whole family something to look forward to. For example, here are ideas to try:
- 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.