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Eating together as a family has the potential to be one of your best activities and one that reaps some pretty good rewards.
Mealtimes have become harder to arrange as there are lots of other pressures competing for your time and focus. However, there really isn’t much else that can compete in terms of value and benefits. Research from both nutritionists and family life professionals shows that families who eat together more than four times a week reap these benefits:
• More nutritious meals and knowledge of basic cooking skills.
• Opportunities to practise social skills and table manners.
• Improved family communication.
• A greater sense of community and family values.
• Stronger family traditions.
If the television is off and phones are not invited to the meal, you are more likely to reach a greater level of communication.
Children who eat regularly at home
A University of Michigan study showed that family mealtime was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behaviour problems. Children in families who eat meals together:
• Perform better in school.
• Have a lower rate of teen pregnancy.
• Are less likely to develop weight problems.
• Are less likely to smoke, use drugs or drink alcohol.
Some families would argue that having a meal together is not a lot of fun, but there are certain ingredients that foster fun and closeness. Create an atmosphere that is warm and friendly.
Your family will test the value of the mealtime on how it ‘felt’ and how much it was enjoyed.
Keys to help make this time memorable
• Create ‘buy in’ by sometimes letting the children help choose what to have for dinner, prepare part of the meal and set the table.
• Set some easy-to-keep rules for mealtimes, such as the child who set such as the child who set the table gets to choose where to sit. Adopt Monday as the special day to focus on manners, e.g. we stay seated on our bottoms, we don’t talk with food in our mouths, and we ask before we get down from the table.
• Every meal needs a start. Some families take turns in who says grace and other families begin the meal with a thank you to the cook. Everyone should be seated before you start.
• Each member should practise saying something positive about the meal. Children may naturally dislike some foods and they can learn to share this respectfully, not rudely.
• Opportunities to talk are essential. Some families play ‘the highs and lows of the day’ where each person talks about the best part and the worst part of their day. To keep this flowing, use the pepper shaker and move it to each person. Another great way to create a fun atmosphere is to use ‘talk triggers’ and have a special box on the table where these unique questions can sit. Everyone gets to pick one random trigger and answer the question.
• Have certain times when there are candles on the table, when you use the special dinner set, have menus made, put on a favourite CD, and place a vase of flowers on the table.
• If someone cannot be present at the first course, wait and all eat dessert together. If it is difficult to arrange dinner time, make a special event out of morning tea, afternoon tea or supper.
• Have times of celebration. You might focus on a school achievement, sporting success, the completion of a task, an area of effort, or a willingness to give something a go. The Red Plate can be awarded at times like this and the recipient gets to eat off this plate. Some children find it hard to accept the disappointment of not getting the accolade. This is a wonderful opportunity to coach your children to remember, “When something good happens to someone else, be glad for them, not sad for yourself." Mums and dads should also be awarded The Red Plate when they have done well at something!
• Studies show that one of the positives about eating with the television off is that children eat healthier meals. If the television is off and phones are not invited to the meal, you are more likely to reach a greater level of communication.
Using every meal to focus on manners. This will create a tense atmosphere. Manners are important, but too strong a focus on them can undo a pleasant atmosphere.
• Hijacking what the children share to growl at them or correct them.
• Being negative about the food. Children pick up your labels and adopt them!
• Serving too much food on the plate. Start with small servings. Children can ask for more if they are still hungry.
• An opportunity for children to make selections from serving bowls on the table.
• Allowing your child to have a few items they do not have to eat – they can choose which. "You are allowed to leave one food that you do not want to eat today.”
• Some involvement with the meal. Helping with the shopping, picking herbs or veggies from the garden, finding a recipe, chopping or mixing, serving the food, pouring the drinks, setting the table, clearing the table etc.
By Jenny Hale - The Parenting Place