family eating a meal together

Importance of Family Meals: How to Get Your Mindset Right

Relationships need nourishment just as our bodies need nourishment. But when our mindset is not right, this affects relationships and the family mealtime. This article discusses the importance of family meals and how to get your mindset right.

Food connects people. We gather around food to share ideas, stories, news, what’s going on in our day, and our lives. Eating meals together is a wonderful way to get outside of ourselves and build relationships (1).

It may be easy to go with the flow of chips, dip, sips, and conversation at a special occasion. But when it comes to your family, are you struggling to eat together?

Importance of family mealtimes. A family of 3 enjoying a meal at the table.
Photo by Pablo Merchan Montes on Unsplash

BENEFEFITS OF FAMILY MEALS

Family meals promote:

  • Well-being – Everyone wants to feel loved and have a sense of belonging. If those needs are not met at home, children may get those needs met in undesirable ways. They may have a less positive attitude about food and their bodies (2).
  • Family awareness – Mealtimes are an excellent place to explore and learn about your family history and cultural foods and traditions.
  • Confidence and social skills – Turn mealtimes into lessons for children by modeling good table manners and communication skills. This gives children an opportunity to learn about things outside of themselves and their world (3). 
  • Self-awareness – A mealtime is a place that can help build awareness of what you like or don’t like to eat. Self-reflection can come out of conversations at the table.
  • Openness to healthy food choices – Children who eat family meals are more likely to make healthy food choices. They are also less likely to consume sugary beverages (2, 4). 
  • Open-mindedness to other people – Eating meals together shows that meals are meant for relationship building. We don’t always eat with people we agree with on everything.
  • Self-sufficiency – Children involved in meal planning, preparation, and meal clean-up are a step ahead in the life skills department. Depending on their age, get them to prepare their meal (without judgment) if they voice dislike for what you’re cooking. You can’t do it all for them forever!

You may find that simply getting everyone to show up and sit together is a feat in itself. Be the leader and set the foundation and expectation that your family eats together and connects during mealtimes. For the rest, you will learn to navigate together as a family. 

THE PARENT’S JOB

  • Provide the food.
  • Set the time for meals
  • Set the place for meals
  • And set the tone. Your job is to also master the art of balancing rules with flexibility whilst keeping in mind what works best for your family and leading with good table manners.
Picture of a sign that says "together"
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The main goal is the gathering, don’t make perfection the goal! This will only lead to more stress and make for a very unpleasant meal experience for everyone. Focus on the big picture: connection and the importance of family meals.

YOUR MINDSET: LET GO OF THE PERFECT TIME

It does not have to be dinner.  Dinner is often the meal that comes to mind when we think of family mealtimes. But it doesn’t have to be. Family meals can be breakfast. Even if that means you’ve only got a few minutes before you all head out the door. It could be a weekend brunch or lunch or even after-school snack time if evenings are tough. 

Family meals don’t have to be every day. Start with a meal or two in the week that works best for everyone’s schedule. 

It does not have to be an exact time.  Too close to the after-school snack time or the prior meal may mean only a few bites eaten. Too late and everyone’s “hangry”. Pick a reasonable time but have some flexibility with it.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

LET GO OF PERFECTION

Worrying makes it worse

Parents often worry when their child does not eat the foods they prepare. They wonder if their child will ever try new foods and eat a balanced diet. It’s difficult for everyone to just relax, eat, and enjoy each other’s company if there is worry in the air. 

Criticism is not cool

Children are like sponges and flies on the wall. They hear what is being said about them and their eating habits and internalize it or react to it negatively. It can be hard to stomach a meal when others are openly criticizing you in your presence.  

Judgement is not part of your job

Eat and enjoy your meal and offer different foods to your children without judgment. If they decline it or dislike them – remember to teach them “No, thank you.” Stop taking your child’s eating behavior personally. 

Throw threats out the door

Threats make for an unpleasant and stressful mealtime and more excuses to avoid eating together. Don’t set your family up for more problems. Nobody wants to eat with a bully and nobody wants a battle. Everyone loses here.   

Reject rigidity

Your family does not all have to eat the same meal to enjoy time together. You might be eating last night’s leftovers to finish it up. Your spouse might be having the spicy stir fry that was just whipped up. And your child is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Bring it all to the table and just be together. 

Treasure your time

Sometimes life happens and you have no time to cook or go to the store. Don’t beat yourself up. Get take-out or order delivery and just be together.

Picture of boy helping himself to some strawberries on the kitchen counter.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

FOCUS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY MEALS WITH THESE TIME SAVING TIPS

  • Serve family-style and allow everyone to help themselves. With your assistance, begin training your child, even at a young age, to help themselves.
  • Include your family’s favorites as you plan out meals. This ensures everyone’s voice is heard and preferences are taken into consideration. 
  • Have easy-to-put-together alternative meals on hand that your child can fix on their own (depending on their age and level of independence) or that you can fix quickly.  Do not judge your child if an alternative is preferred.
  • Continue to set the expectations even if your child won’t eat. Even if your child doesn’t eat, lead by example as the parent and show the importance of family connection. Enjoy your meal and the family bonding regardless of your child’s appetite.Item 1
  • Depending on the spacing of meals, you may want to consider a snack between meals to avoid hangry and to manage your worry. For some children and even adults, grazing works for them. Also, snacking together is a great way to connect and gently introduce balanced snack ideas. 
  • There is no shame in adding a multivitamin. 
  • Make meals in a snap: Use a meal prep service, pre-cut foods, pre-cooked meals, convenience foods, and anything else that will make life easier for you.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

THE PERFECT PLACE TO EAT DOESN’T EXIST

Meals don’t have to be at your table. Any of these places work, too, and offer literally, a breath of fresh air or a change of pace:

  • The park
  • The beach or pool 
  • The backyard or patio
  • In the living room – don’t let a cluttered dining room table derail your plans. Eat in the living room or another room if you have no time to clean up. 
  • The formal dining room that nobody eats at or uses. 
  • The bedroom – breakfast or brunch in bed would be a nice treat on the weekends. 
  • The restaurant
  • The car and looking out at a scenic view. No tables where you’re going? Eat your meal in the car and enjoy the view and time together. 

You don’t need a spotless kitchen to eat. Save the cleaning for later if it’s cutting into your mealtime especially if you’re on the brink of hangry. Depending on your child’s age, train them on teamwork and the life skills of after-meal clean-up.

Mother and son eating outside on their picnic blanket with their picnic basket and drinks.
Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash

DITCH THE DISTRACTIONS

Distractions are a sure-fire way of breaking family bonds. Put away the devices, turn off the TV, and communicate

You don’t have to have the gift of gab to talk. You don’t even have to have anything interesting to say. Just be present with your family, ask them how their day was, and listen. 

Focus on the importance of family meals with these fun and light conversation starters:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Get more than a “yes” or “no” answer out of each other. Ask questions like: ‘What good/interesting/surprising thing happened to you today?’ or ‘What are you looking forward to this weekend or at your school/extracurricular activity/work/hobby this week?’
  • Play “my turn to talk” with a toy or object. A great way to remember manners if your family is in the habit of speaking over each other. Bring a toy or object to the table and take turns passing it around. Whoever has it, it is their turn to talk.
  • Play favorites. Take turns choosing a favorite thing to talk about. For example, take turns sharing your favorite shows, books, songs, colors, memories, toys, and places you’ve visited or would like to visit. 
  • Play with food. A gentle way to introduce new foods to kids. Use food, including finger foods, cut up fruits and vegetables to make a face or scene on a plate or serving platter.

Sometimes conversations turn into debates. This is all part of family life and should not deter you from carving out time for family meals.  No family perfectly agrees on everything. 

Set rules for topics to not bring up during mealtime. Nobody wants to eat if they’re too stressed out or disgusted. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Eating is something that comes naturally but eating together as a family is a learned behavior. It takes time with some planning (or backup plans) and commitment to form this into a habit. And it all starts with your mindset. 

Eating meals with your family does not need to be a constant struggle. By minding your manners and bchanging your mindset, you set the tone for what mealtime is all about: family time.

Modified: Aug 19, 2022

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