by Collett Smart
Children who take part in family meals display less delinquency, greater academic achievement, improved psychological wellbeing, more positive family interactions and eat healthier foods.
Eating meals together as a family has wonderful benefits. Frequent regular family meals (3–7 times a week) reflect a sense of family connection and priorities. It says, “We are important!”
Not a lot is known about exactly why family meals create benefits, but it is suggested that it might be due to the empathy, family cohesion, family attitudes and communication skills modelled or displayed during these times. The time together also generates feelings of closeness and comfort, providing a unique context to connect with your tweens and teens.
Although family meal time on its own is not a magic bullet for emotional health, evidence suggests that children who take part in family meals display less delinquency, greater academic achievement, improved psychological wellbeing, more positive family interactions and eat healthier foods (1).
This feels like another thing to add to the week – What should we aim for?
If you haven’t been doing ‘family meal time’, set a goal that is realistic and doable for your family. Perhaps you might try to have a family meal at least three times per week, even if some members can’t be there occasionally, due to part-time jobs, work schedules, sport or other activities.
A family meal also doesn’t need to be a formal affair. It could be lunch at the kitchen bench after school, a sandwich on your lap, an afternoon tea outside on the patio, or a Sunday picnic in the garden. The key factors include; no screens, the focus being on the people present, teens and adults all included in the conversation, for a designated period of time. The meal habit communicates that time together is important. It’s OK if some teens prefer to just listen, be present and don’t want to chat every time. It is the ‘being together’ that counts.
Another goal might be to include both children and adults at the table, or in a big circle of chairs, when family friends are over for a meal. This was demonstrated to me by friends who always pull together their two odd tables when people are over (waves to Kerrie). They ensure that adults and children sit at meals together. Children and teens are included in the conversation, get to watch how other families interact and also gain the benefit of incidental mentoring by being part of adults’ discussions. Teens don’t need to sit at the table for the entire social event, but are expected to stay for the duration of the meal.
Even when it’s mayhem
It’s normal to have the turning-up-of-noses at food, bickering or irritability some days -> um… did I mention the turning-up-of-noses? Families aren’t robots. These instances help parents to model saying sorry, how to empathise with the person who has had a bad day, to teach respectful communication and gratitude for what we have and what has been prepared. Gratitude and empathy are standouts, when teens have been part of preparing a weekly meal.
Some meal time conversation starter ideas, to try occasionally:
- “List one good thing and one not very good thing that happened in your day.” It is vital that adults share some of their struggles as teens, in particular, often imagine that adults don’t have inner conflict.
- “What do you think might help Dad deal with that difficult person at work this week?” Let teens help you brainstorm. Keep it age appropriate and don’t scoff at their suggestions.
- “How did [that issue] you just spoke about make you feel today?”
- “What did you enjoy most about your sport/flute/event this week?”
- “Who is someone you are worried about at the moment?”
- (insert your own here)
One last thought
Even if meal times don’t happen during busy periods, don’t beat yourself up. That’s just life and family and being human. Just pick up where you left off. There is so much happening within the fabric of meal times that it is worth fighting to keep this habit going in your home.
Do you have any advice for us, on how you tweaked your weekly routine to add in a family meal or two?
Please support or encourage a parent, by sharing this article with them.
Adapted from Conversation #6 in Collett’s book, THEY’LL be OKAY: 15 Conversations to Help Your Child Through Troubled Times (Hachette, 2019). Another version printed at Mums At the Table.