Do you remember when you last sat down for a proper dinner with the rest of your family?
If you do, and it was within the last few days, you should congratulate yourself. Unfortunately, it is now rare or nonexistent for many families.
Our lives have become increasingly busy, with many of us working long hours and many more mothers now out at work. The number of children attending extracurricular activities has also increased making the end of the day a busy and stressful time. We have less time to cook meals from scratch, while fast food has become more easily accessible.
Many families eat fast food most days of the week. Indeed, I have had many mothers say to me that they have never cooked a family meal, but rather that they collect something on the way home. Does this sound familiar?
In many households, individual family members, including children, are eating on their own – often in their bedrooms or in front of the television.
When I was a child, my family had our dinner at the same time every day at the kitchen table. We knew what time we had to be home and that there would be an expectation that we would wash our hands and help set the table. Not only did we learn table manners, including how to use cutlery appropriately, but we also learned the art of social communication, including taking turns.
It was the time when we would chat about our day. We would have never dared to get down from the table until everyone had finished their meal and when the meal was finished we would help clean up. As the Cayman Super Nanny, I work in homes with families where too often shared mealtimes do not exist, children do not know how to use cutlery, using their fingers instead, and they feel that it is OK to walk around the house while eating.
I am sure that many of you will have seen children out in restaurants who behave in this way as well as those children who sit with an iPad or equivalent in front of them while eating.
There is a wealth of evidence linking the family environment, and shared mealtimes in particular, with learning how to socialise and behave appropriately. Children learn these skills from their parents at the family dinner table. If these shared meals do not take place then learning opportunities are lost.
I remember a few years ago being at an important business lunch where my boss was trying to impress potential clients. I was shocked that my boss, one of the senior partner’s at the company, had such terrible table manners. He did not know which cutlery to use, he ate too fast and he spoke with his mouth full. I do not need to tell you that the impression he made was not the one he intended.
Family routines also help children to feel secure and loved. Regular shared mealtimes give children opportunities to discuss their problems, and feeling that their opinions are valued will create trust within the family. This interaction will also teach them to respect other family members and become closer with their siblings. Your children will learn that you are interested in them and their views if you take the time to share meals with them.
The importance of parents as role models in the shared family meal becomes a recurring theme in research around the world:
‘Eating together as a family creates better eating habits later in life’ Journal of the American Diebetic Association. September 2007. In the long-term they had better diet quality, social eating, meal structure and meal frequency.
Research in Australia found that teenagers who regularly ate with their family were less likely to be overweight. Family meals led to reduced snacking and healthier food and social habits. American Journal Obesity Research.
Children who eat frequently with their families have better results at school and are less depressed. (Carson, 2006)
Teenagers who have dinner with their parents are less likely to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs. The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, September 2003.
“Volumes have been written about how to keep teenagers out of trouble, the answer may be as simple as eating family meals together more often.” ScienceDaily.Com 21st August 1997
If you, and your family, already enjoy shared family mealtimes you should feel pleased with your efforts. The rewards will be long lasting.
If you do not, and it seems an impossible task, why not start to take a few easy steps towards that valuable goal.
Try when possible to sit down with your children and share a meal, even if it is fast food.
Always turn off computers and televisions.
Teach your children good table manners, be a good role model for them.
Make mealtimes fun. Use it is an opportunity to take time out of the busy day to enjoy each other’s company.
Get the children to help; preparing the food, laying the table and helping to clear up afterwards. Show them you are grateful and that you appreciate their help.
You may not be able to sit down with the family every day, but wherever possible please take the time.
You will be repaid with better-behaved children who have better eating habits and more social skills. Let’s make family mealtimes a priority again and improve the prospects for our children.
Susie Bodden is a chartered educational psychologist and she can be reached at [email protected]