After a busy day doing whatever it is you do, herding the family into one room to eat dinner together might not seem like a nice way to relax in the evening. Slaving over a hot stove after a hard day only to be told “I’m not eating this, it was nicer last time” as the dog throws up under the table, is certainly not my favourite way to unwind.
I get it, but the research shows that there are too many benefits to just ignore it. Trust me, it’s well worth the effort.
Family mealtimes are a great opportunity to socialise and catch up with your family. You are stuck together for the next 30 minutes so make the most of it. Ask your kids about their day, find out what’s going on in their lives – and pay attention! Put phones away, turn the TV off – be present. Paying an interest in your kid’s lives is something they value and remember.
This is also a great time to practice some positive thinking. I have one question for my kids every day.
Tell me one good thing about your day.
It doesn’t matter how bad your day has been I bet there is at least one good thing about it. The food you are eating right now, the sun is shining, I smashed my maths test – whatever it is. A positive, grateful mind is a present one. Appreciating the little things frees us from the fear of the future.
We get our kids to take turns asking each other. We all ask and we all listen. It brings us all closer together and teaches us about each other, key to building bonds in a blended family.
This is number 1 on the list for a reason. You can all help each other solve any problems individuals are facing. It brings you together and makes you feel like a team – a cohesive family unit.
#2 Have better family relationships
All this talking and getting to know each other will undoubtedly bring you closer together. You will have a higher-quality relationship with your kids. They will feel appreciated and listened too. Like you actually give a crap – which we know you do.
It seems a bit of a stretch but there is research that shows the high-quality relationships you build with your kids through family mealtimes is strongly linked to teen substance use prevention.
These precious 30 minutes when you are stuck together for the purpose of refuelling your body will allow you all to reconnect. You will also find out things that you might not have discovered otherwise, things your kids might be struggling with. The whole family will naturally start to offer suggestions to help each other that further enhance the bonds you are forging. This is where you can all pull together, a safe space where everyone is heard.
You will gain a deeper understanding of your kids, them of each other and they will also understand you more.
#3 Increased well being
Another study has shown that, particularly in adolescents, regular family mealtimes enhance health and well being. The study concluded that:
Young people whose families routinely eat meals together spend more time on homework and reading for pleasure. Frequent family meals have also been related to better nutritional intake and a decreased risk for unhealthy weight control practices, substance use, sexual intercourse, and suicidal involvement.
That’s a lot of benefit for a pretty small investment.
Eating together, listening to your kids, talking about your own day is a great stress reliever. It’s a chance for everyone to share, feel connected and loved.
Look around the table, take stock of the lives you are nurturing and raising. Parenting is hard work but take this chance to reflect and be proud of what you are accomplishing. That’s good for your mental health and well-being.
#4 Healthier Choices
Eating together will also model good behaviours. For younger children it will help them to understand how to eat at a table, how to hold a knife and fork, listening to others patiently and using manners properly.
You are also modelling how to have a good, healthy and balanced diet.
It’s not always easy but your diet might have to change too. You probably already know if it needs to improve. You don’t want your kids seeing you eat that many fries right? My diet has changed, but only for the better. I want my kids to see me eating the right food in the hope that they make healthier choices.
Here’s another study. It found that eating together as a family meant more fruits and vegetables, less fried food and soda, less saturated and trans fat, more micronutrients and fibre from food.
Kids aren’t fussy eaters just to piss you off. Not all the time anyway. It’s natural to play a little with food. To experiment with its texture, taste and smell. It’s a natural defence mechanism to prevent eating anything that’s poisonous. The first time you introduce a new food, do so without any pressure to eat it. Let them explore the food. They are twice as likely to try the new food if it is introduced in this way.
We have already discussed some ways of looking after your families (and your own!) mental health by eating together. You can go one further and use it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can do it both when cooking/preparing and also when eating your creations.
Anxiety is often the fear of the unknown or the future and depression is linked with remembering a negative past. Meditation is about being present and it can be tricky. You are asked to sit still and calmly with nothing but your thoughts and your breath. When you are cooking or eating there are so many senses to help keep you in the present, to keep your thoughts from wandering.
Focus on the sounds as you cook, the sizzle of the ingredients in the pan or the noise of the whisking. Notice the change in smells as food comes together to form something different from its original form. Pay attention to how different foods cut, how the texture changes the dish.
You can do the same during the meal itself. Talk about the smells, taste and texture of the meal. It’s a simple, effective way to gain some presence in your day. It can bring perspective to worries and some gratitude for the simple things in life.
How do I actually make this happen?
So you are now sold on the benefits of family mealtimes. How do you actually make them happen and make sure you don’t want to retreat to a log cabin in the woods after?
Well, 2 and a half years after we started doing it let me tell you that it doesn’t happen that way all the time. My family don’t always leave the dinner table laughing, hugging and high fiving each other. Sometimes I need five damn minutes to myself to find some calm afterwards.
But that’s ok, that’s life. The benefits still far outweigh any negatives and the negatives are my perception and my issue. My irritability that day, my annoyance at having to clean the kitchen again, me being upset that after cooking the same meal 4 ways someone still doesn’t like it.
Most of the time I love our family mealtimes. Sometimes I don’t. I wanted you to know that. Don’t feel like you are a monster because some days you are pissed about something. There is always tomorrow.
I have found a few things that help though:
- Get the kids involved – Everything from meal planning, shopping, preparing and cleaning up afterwards. Again, sometimes this is going to seem like more work than just doing it yourself. Sometimes you will just do it yourself (I like a nice cold glass of beer – some Lee time 😊). But these are life lessons your kids need to learn. How to meal plan and shop within a budget. What’s the correct way to load a dishwasher. It will create more stress, hassle and mess initially (and broken plates!) but pretty soon you will have some actual, useful help at mealtimes.
- Get into a routine. Have your mealtimes at roughly the same time every day and set a rota for the helping I mentioned above. That way everyone knows what’s happening.
- No distractions – No TV, no phones, no toys. You aren’t going to get the benefits if none of you are being present.
- Have realistic expectations – Your kids aren’t going to like everything that you cook. They are going to drop food on the floor, get it round their faces and in their hair. This isn’t about having draconian formal mealtimes. Sure, we want to teach proper table manners but for your own sanity and enjoyment don’t be too harsh.
- Create a bank of meals that everyone likes – With six of us sometimes for dinner it can be hard to please everyone. We have a few meals that we can alter slightly (I am not cooking 4 different meals in one night!) that everyone loves. Mexican is always a favourite. We put on a wide variety of salad, have two different fillings with different levels of spiciness and have a huge spread of sauces and dips to please everyone. The kids love getting hands-on making their own version of a wrap with the things that they like to eat. I can add more spice to mine as I like my eyes to water with my food. It’s a winner. Or homemade pizza – every one can have the topping that they love Have a few of these types of meals in your repertoire and ready to go.
Finally and perhaps most importantly – don’t beat yourself up! Sometimes I put oven fries and frozen chicken nuggets in the oven because I just don’t have the energy to cook right now. There are sometimes I need 30 mins while the oven is doing the hard work to feel human again.
That’s called life. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t stretch yourself too thin. Give yourself permission to let the freezer take the burden away from you when you need it. It’s not the end of the world. Be realistic with your targets and don’t forget that in the five points above only 1 of them was about the actual food.
I know that our kids enjoy eating together around the dinner table. They enjoy socialising with each other and I know that they will always remember the Mexican meals and roast dinners where we all laughed till we cried.