As a nation, we’re increasingly falling out of love with our dining tables. From working late to ‘TV dinners’ to desk lunches and even eating in bed, we’ve somehow managed to drift away from what was once considered an integral part of family life. Recent research has shown that despite drifting away from dinner table meals, the majority of us (58%) still feel it’s important for families to eat together around the table.
Academic research has demonstrated that eating together at the dining table can be hugely beneficial to children. Not only has it shown to boost children’s vocabulary more than being read aloud to, but, for school going children, family dinners have shown to deliver better performance in school than doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
Establishing a mealtime routine can be hard on parents, especially after the school holidays. But with the start of the term on the horizon, getting our children into the habit of good sleep and mealtime routines is paramount, both for children and parents. Here to help us implement that in the least disruptive way are chartered clinical psychologist Dr. Lucia Giombini and nutritionist Samantha Paget, who are sharing their tips on how to make mealtimes engaging, fun, nutritious and productive.
The dinner table is more than simply a place where we eat food. It may be where social support and family involvement come together. Undoubtedly, eating at a table and having a positive interaction are associated with stronger and more positive feelings thatcan overpower the tendency to overeat. 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 are both associated with lower BMI s for parents and children.
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).
Despite the many benefits, little has been done to increase family meal frequency. The researchers encourage families to eat together at a kitchen table or dining room with the television off. Additionally, encouraging the children to talk meaningfully about their day might also be an easy change to make.
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 was making meals enjoyable and minimizing mealtime stress. Techniques used to increase enjoyment and reduce stress included 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, at times we may struggle to eat at the dining table. In that case, she advises to design a more attractive space in which to dine. 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 and tidy (don’t let it fill up with non-dining related objects such as paperwork!).
Eating healthily is about a lot more than just the food we eat, it’s about being conscious and mindful whilst we eat, and ensuring the environment around us is conducive to aiding digestion and enjoyment. Keeping the area a tech-free zone can also help. We are constantly surrounded by technological distractions these days, so mealtimes should be a welcome break from phones and TV and computers, and a time to relax and converse with family and friends, or simply to reflect on your own over a nice meal.
In terms of cooking meals that are easy for the table, adds Samantha, sharing plates are a winner, such as big salads with lots of vegetables, bowls of grains such as brown rice, and easy protein sources such as grilled salmon or chicken that only need some salt & pepper as seasoning.
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
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