With the new school term starting for many of us this week, we’re all likely putting paramount importance on giving our children the best start possible to the school term. However, far more basic than after-school activities, ensuring that everyone’s getting their necessary dose of brain-enhancing foods, and even checking in on homework, there’s a potential trick we’re missing: returning to the tradition of family meals at the dinner table after a day at school and work.
As a nation we’re increasingly falling out of love with our dining tables, even though recent research found that 58% of us do agree that it’s important to have family meals around the table. Academic research has also demonstrated that eating together at the dining table can boost children’s vocabulary more than being read aloud to, and delivered better performance in school than set homework hours or creative extracurricular activities.
Even though family mealtimes can be hard to achieve for working parents, getting our children into the habit of good sleep and mealtime routines is paramount for everyone’s wellbeing. Chartered clinical psychologist Dr. Lucia Giombini and nutritionist Samantha Paget have given their views on how to establish a realistic schedule that benefits everyone, which we’re very happy to share with you.
The dinner table is a place where social support and family involvement come together. Positive interactions at the table, for example, can overpower the urge to overeat, leading to lower, healthier BMIs for both parents and children This is confirmed by some recent studies suggesting that eating in the kitchen or at the dining room table and remaining at the table until everyone is finished eating have been linked to better physical health and healthier food choices at all ages – an increasingly important skill to learn in today’s convenience food led society.
This behaviour may be related to less distracted eating or less supervised eating. Furthermore, eating together as a family more often is associated with a higher intake of nutrients linked to improved health, such as fruits and vegetables and a lower intake of items that are recommended only in limited amounts (e.g., soft drinks, fried foods).
Those who successfully had family meals frequently managed to create a family mealtime culture with the expectation that family members were to be there for meals, developing a structured mealtime routine (e.g., set the table, institute a regular time to eat each day), and communicating work and after-school schedules with family members.
Other parents indicated that a strategy they used to overcome resistance to attending family meals were serving foods that children enjoy, getting children involved in food preparation and shopping, and keeping mealtime conversation fun and interesting for the whole family.
According to nutritionist Samantha Paget, designing a more attractive space in which to dine can make all the difference. This might mean moving the table closer to a window, putting some flowers on the table, getting some nice new crockery or even furniture itself, and keeping the space clean, tidy and free of technology, with paperwork or homework moving to a different space so the dining table is kept exclusively for eating.
In terms of cooking meals that are easy for the table, adds Samantha, sharing plates are a winner. Grilled salmon or chicken are nutritious with only a sparing amount of seasoning, while anything children can get their hands on and partially assemble or serve themselves is always a sure-fire family favourite!
Top tips to establishing a family mealtime culture:
- Design a more attractive space in which to dine
- Eat together at a kitchen table or dining room with the television off
- Develop a routine: set the table, institute a regular time to eat each day
- Serve foods that children enjoy (serve sharing platters)
- Get children involved in food preparation and shopping
- Keep mealtime conversation fun and interesting for the whole family
- Encourage children to talk meaningfully about their day
- Keep the area a tech-free zone