WORDS: Madhavi Nawana Parker, Positive Minds Australia
First, let’s get this straight. Every family is different. While we know that eating together as a family can have a wide range of physical, social, emotional and academic benefits, in some families, in particular neurodivergent families, mealtimes together can add to stress, conflict and overwhelm.
When you read this article, think about what’s best for your family and listen to your intuition.
When done right, the benefits of eating together have been researched to include increased connection with parents and siblings, higher self-esteem, better academic performance and lower risk of mental health disorders and risk-taking behaviours. Teenagers who eat regularly with their families have shown improved mood and optimism and a stronger sense of happiness and wellbeing.
In a study where children had been cyberbullied, family meals were shown to have a significant impact on a child’s ability to bounce back.
Here are some ideas to help you get the most out of family meals
- Try to keep calm about food (I know – much easier said than done)
Emotions are contagious and when your children ramp up, it’s hard not to ramp up yourself. Yet, (sorry for the spoiler), children really do rely on our calm, to get calm again, themselves.
- Keep things in perspective
Children have a natural drive to eat, to be nourished, to grow (and they will). Your warm connection at mealtimes is where the benefits to eating together come into play, not how many colours of the rainbow they just consumed.
- Lead by example
Remember, this is what children do – they test the limits and take the easy and fun way when it comes to food – or most things for that matter. Avoid the lecture (they don’t listen to those), and try to be the living example of what you hope they will one day be, when it comes to food.
- Lift the mood with family memories
When you are internally aggravated by the conflict that’s emerging between siblings at the table, distract them with a, ‘remember the time…’ story. Reflecting on family stories and past joys can lift the mood and bring a deeper sense of love and connection. Memories bring back joyful feelings as if you were there, all over again.
- Find creative ways to laugh
Call the meal a ridiculous name, pretend to keep hearing something your child is saying wrong, use a knife for a fork – anything that lightens up the atmosphere. Think how much you love sharing a meal with a friend who makes you laugh; that’s the feeling you want replicated for your family, as much as possible.
- Create mealtime rituals
Rituals that are positive, like gratitude, complimenting each other, lighting candles and decorating the table. It can set a healthy mood if you start by giving thanks for the meal through Grace (which doesn’t have to be religious) but reminds everyone the food came from somewhere, was prepared by someone and it’s a blessing to have it instead of going hungry.
- Invite someone over
Adding a person or two to a family dinner can really uplift the family dynamics – especially if those dynamics have drained you and you’re struggling to keep the mood light. If you’re one of those families where the siblings compete and argue all through the meal, adding a visitor can break the tension (at least in theory – sorry in advance if they torture your visitor with their conflict!)
- Make a decision about dessert – the unfair competitor for nutritious food
For adults, dessert signals the end of the meal, but children don’t think like this. If you can stick to one small serving of dessert and throw it in with the rest of the meal, then even if they start with the dessert, it’s still highly likely they will eat a lot of the other foods offered on the table. Using dessert as a reward for finishing all the food can lead to all kinds of battles and potentially unhealthy relationship with food (for example, sweet food equals a reward for being ‘good.’)
- Nurture respectful food conversations
Teach them respectful ways of responding to not liking the food (which triggers most exhausted parents who have slaved over a meal to be met with complaints or a refusal to eat). Let them know you understand they won’t like everything at the table but remind them it’s never okay to be rude about the food. If they are rude about the food, chat to them in private when they are calm, so they know why these are your expectations and the impact their words have on your feelings.
- Play background music
Family playlists can be a great way to keep the mood lifted where everyone contributes their favourite songs. Playing world music can also add a harmonious touch. Music has been widely researched to lift people’s moods quickly and significantly.
- Pick your battles
Decide what’s most important to you and try not to jump on everything they do wrong. You’ll know what’s okay and part of childhood and what’s rude, hurtful or disrespectful.
- It’s OK to keep it simple
Last but not least, try and take the pressure off yourself and your child. If eating weetbix, scrambled eggs on toast or baked beans with a side of whatever is easy, makes dinner and life easier and calmer, then do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to these foods to get our family through busy weeks where I’m far more interested in having a genuine conversation with a good dose of laughter at the table, than ticking off the five food groups.
Parents, it’s far more important you eat together harmoniously and with warmth and love, than have perfectly nutritious meals where nothing is left on anyone’s plates. Being together as a family and building your relationships with each other is one of the most vital ingredients for a happy life.
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