How to make family mealtimes work

Did you know that sitting down with your family and sharing a meal, can have lifelong positive outcomes for your child?  Studies have found that children who participate in regular family meals have higher self-esteem, higher grades, and lower rates of substance abuse and obesity. In the short term, the benefits are also significant.  If you want your child to learn to eat a certain food, the best thing you can do is sit down and eat it with them, as children learn a lot by copying other people’s behaviour. Children of all ages benefit from participating in regular family meals.

While we know sitting down and eating together as a family is ideal, it isn’t always easy.  Families come in many shapes and sizes and schedules are busy. How do make family mealtimes work, no matter what is going on in your house?

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Here are our top 8 tips for successful family mealtimes:

1.     Prepare your child for the mealtime. Provide a 5 minute warning before the meal.   Engage your child in a pre-mealtime routine such as washing hands and setting the table.

2.     Whoever is home when the meal is served, sit down and eat it together.  Some times this might be the whole extended family and other times it might just be a single parent and child. This is ok.  

3.     Family mealtimes can happen for ANY meal. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner. We don’t need to put more emphasis on any particular meal.  

4.     Limit distractions.  This means televisions are turned off, toys are not at the table etc. The focus for family mealtimes is the food and the company. 

5.     Put food in the middle of the table with at least one “safe” food. This means there is at least one thing on the table that each individual feels comfortable eating. This doesn’t mean a number of different meals are cooked.  A safe food may be as simple as plain rice, pasta before it is mixed with anything else.  Serving food in the middle of the table allows children to feel in control and gradually become more open to the idea of having it on their plate.  

6.     Nobody comments on what or how much anyone else is eating.  Parents are responsible for choosing what food is presented at mealtimes, children are responsible for what and how much they eat from what is presented. This means nobody is forced, or coerced or bribed to eat a food.  Everyone is responsible for their own eating. If this is a new idea for you – click here to read about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility at Mealtimes.

7.     Encourage food curiosity, without any pressure to eat a food. Seeing food, touching food and smelling food are all learning opportunities that help children on their journey towards learning to eat and should be encouraged.  

8.     Keep mealtimes short. Most children will eat as much as they are hungry for within the first 10-15 minutes of a meal.   There should be no pressure for anyone to finish what is on their plate. A pack-up routine is a good way to prepare your child that mealtime is about to end and give them a last chance to eat if they are hungry.  

This article was written by Nicole Wu (Speech Pathologist and Co-Founder of Learn to Eat. Love to Eat.) for Umbrella Family Law.  

Nicole Wu