Numerous studies have shown the benefits of family meal times. Parents and children who eat together on a regular basis have been found to have fewer emotional and behavioural problems, greater emotional wellbeing, more trusting and helpful behaviours towards others and higher life satisfaction.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that family suppers can benefit children, regardless of whether or not they find it easy to talk to their parents. In addition, it seems that family meals lead to a healthier diet. A study by Harvard Medical School found that children who ate with their families consumed more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat than those who ate alone.
Getting into the habit of having dinner together, especially on a week night, isn’t always easy. Work commitments can make it difficult, and many parents face the logistical challenge of ferrying children to and from various activity clubs. Family meal times require forward planning, and in our time-poor culture, it’s understandable that this daily habit has, for many of us, slipped down the priority list.
“I think there’s a real culture shift going on where people are realising that they’re missing out on the bonding that takes place over a family meal,” says Denise Edwards, who runs Wipe Easy Tablecloths. “Mums especially are telling me that they want to prioritise family meal times like their own parents did. But the fact is that they are often working longer hours and have more time pressures, so it’s not easy.”
Many of the mums that contact Denise say that making the table look inviting is an important part of their family meal ritual.
“Lots of mums tell us they get their children involved in choosing a tablecloth and this helps them to be keener to sit at the table for a meal. A pretty colour or pattern makes the table look more inviting. Of course, there’s also the benefit that children can wipe clean a plastic or vinyl tablecloth, so it’s a good way to get them involved in organising the family meal and giving them more responsibility,” adds Denise.
If you’re keen to get into the habit of regular family meals, here are our top 5 tips.
1. Agree the plan with your family
You can’t do this alone! Tell your partner or spouse and your children and get their support. If you let them know why it’s an important issue to you you’re more likely to succeed in getting them on board. If you don’t currently sit down for dinner at all, set a goal to do so at least 3 times a week at first. You can always build up to a daily habit from there.
It’s also a good idea to set some basic rules – tell you family that you expect them be at home for dinner by 6pm (or whatever suits you) and that their mobile phones, computers, games consoles and TVs are banned from the table.
2. Plan ahead
Family mealtimes mean, of course, that you have to produce a meal! If you have children of different ages this can be a real challenge. The best thing you can do is plan ahead. Once a week, set aside some time to think about what you or your partner will cook for your family meal times. Consider the amount of time you’ll have available – if you know you’ll only have 20 minutes one evening, keep it simple or make the dish in advance so that you only have to re-heat.
If your family has played a part in choosing what they’re going to eat they’re more likely to be positive about the meal. Depending on the age of your children you can get them involved in deciding what’s for dinner. If they’re primary school-age you might like to get them to choose one of three dishes you know you have time and the ingredients to make. If they’re older, give them a recipe book and ask them what they will help you to make!
3. Make your table look inviting and easy to clean
Make your table look inviting by investing in some pretty placemats, the right cutlery and a tablecloth you can wipe clean. As well as brightening up your table, a wipe clean tablecloth will make family meal times so much easier because clearing up is simple. All you have to do is wipe the tablecloth with a clean, damp cloth and it’s ready for the next meal time – no washing and certainly no ironing!
4. Get your children involved
Think of ways to get your children involved in organising the meal.
As well as setting the table, your family could get involved in clearing away the dirty dishes (under supervision, of course!) You may even find ways to get them involved in preparing the meal itself – the type of task will, of course, depend upon your child’s age but finding ingredients or utensils while you cook can be a good starting point.
5. Stay committed yet flexible
Creating a new family mealtime habit can take time, and sometimes it won’t be possible. Perhaps the most important key to success is staying committed – there will be some evenings and weekends when it just isn’t possible to sit down together on a regular basis.
However, starting afresh the next week is better than giving up. And if the research is anything to go by, your efforts will pay dividends in the future for the whole family.