Mealtimes … Nourishment for the Family!

Many parents today have strong memories of the evening ritual of eating a family meal around the dinner table together. Whether it is memories of the vegetables we disliked and tried avoiding, or the stories shared by other members of the family that gave us a good laugh, these times stand out as significant and influential. 

Fast-forward to the 21st century I’m sure we can all relate to the challenges associated with trying to bring the family together for a regular mealtime. The pressures of balancing family commitments with school, friendships, sport and other activities can be challenging and even overwhelming at times. Whilst we are in the midst of a time of change in many of our lives as a result of COVID-19, this is the perfect opportunity for families to be intentional about reinforcing the tradition and importance of mealtimes.

As with all things, we need to consider the value and benefits from a shared mealtime in considering its priority in our life. Considerable research in recent years, primarily in America, has been conducted with a specific focus upon the importance of family mealtimes.

Research  conducted by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (2011) found that children who eat regular meals with their family are at a lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems and alcohol or substance dependence.

One of the largest federally-funded studies on American teenagers specifically highlighted the benefits associated with student academic success and improved psychological health as a result of regular family mealtimes together.

A growing movement operating out of Harvard University – “The Family Dinner Project” – highlights the value of a family meal together in its research conducted over the past 15 years. Their studies reveal that family mealtimes help to build vocabulary in young children. Conversations around the dinner table can improve children’s language development and assist children to become confident readers. In addition to this, mealtimes are a training ground for social skills and manners, which is something that is slowly being eroded away in today’s world.

If family mealtimes are as valuable as research is suggesting, how do we go about making them a special time where memories are formed? Trying to set aside one night or morning a week to sit at the table together for a special meal might be a good place to start for your family. Research suggests that a minimum of three times per week is most beneficial.

Eliminating distractions and developing some ideas and strategies for making these times together both successful and enjoyable is the key. Perhaps encourage your children to help with the meal preparation or have a special theme for the meal once a week such as a Barbarian dinner – eating the meal with your hands only!  It might be having a special pancake breakfast together on the weekend, which could turn into a weekly ritual. Encourage your children to share with you stories from their day, highlights and lowlights and be willing to share your life stories that may help them on their journey. Using the time to talk about their friends and activities that are coming up can also be valuable. Having pictures or photos at the meal table can be great conversation starters with your children when discussion doesn’t come easily. The key is spending time together and making it both memorable and fun.

Mealtimes together bring stability, closeness and comfort to families and as the research is suggesting, this simple ritual can have a significant impact upon the development and wellbeing of your children. Enjoy sharing in mealtimes together and allow them to contribute to the health of the whole family.

Paul Sterling