Family meal (as many family members as possible sitting down to eat together with no screens on) are a frequent recommendation to parents. They benefit kids of all ages for different reasons, but they can be a challenge as kids get older.
Babies and Toddlers- Learning to Eat
Little babies who are still breast or bottle feeding can join the family in a parent’s arms or lap to keep them happy and entertained during meals. Once the baby is developmentally ready to sit in a high chair and start finger feeding, start including them at the table when you are eating. Kids learn to eat by watching parents eat. Watching parents eat a variety of foods, including veggies, encourages little ones to eat a variety of foods as well. Babies can also start to learn some of the rules and rituals of mealtime, like saying grace (if your family does that), talking about your day over your evening meal, or waiting until everyone is finished eating before leaving the table.
School-aged Kids- Learning Manners
Family mealtimes are a great time to work on manners as kids get older. Even young kids can be reminded to chew with their mouths closed, not talk with food in their mouths, and put their napkin in their lap. Kids should also learn that they don’t start eating until everyone is at the table (including parents). If learning manners is a challenge, try turning it into a game. Give everyone at the table 5 nickels at the start of the meal. Pick one manners rule that you will all work on. Anyone who breaks the rule has to give up one nickel to the person who catches them. For encouragement, parents can “accidentally” break the rules when kids are looking.
Older Kids- Staying Connected
As kids get older, they become busier with friends and activities outside the family, which makes it harder to stay connected. Studies have shown that frequent family meals are associated with decreased disordered eating, alcohol and other substance use, violent behavior, and feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide in adolescents. They have also shown a relationship between frequent family meals and increased self esteem and school success. These relationships tend to be stronger in girls than in boys. Researchers theorize that family meals give families the chance to “check in” with each other which increases the teens’ sense of connection. Family meals have also been associated with decreased obesity in children and teenagers. Some studies have found family meals in adolescence to be protective against adult obesity, but this finding has not been consistent. All of these studies vary in how they define frequent family meals, but they generally refer to 5-7 meals per week where “most or all” of the people living in the house eat together.
Making Family Meals Work
Family meals can be difficult for busy families on the go. Parents work, and kids have after school sports and other activities. In this case, "perfect" is the enemy of "good enough." Aim for meals with whoever is available even if it isn’t the whole family. Try having some family breakfasts in addition to dinners. Even if you don’t have time to cook, you can still eat together as a family. Bring take-out food home, and sit down together at the dinner table. Some family meals are better than none. Even if you can’t manage 5-7 meals per week, try to increase what you are currently doing by 1 or 2. The more you try to make family meals a habit, the easier it will be. The more family meals you have, the more benefit there will be for your kids and your family.