The power of a family meal

June 26th, 2020

During this year of social isolation, parents and teens are spending more time than usual in each other’s company. Sometimes this can be challenging! But it also gives families the chance to enjoy being together and get to know each other better. One place where this can happen is around the dinner table.

 

The benefits of a family meal

Studies have found that eating together as a family has great benefits for children’s health and wellbeing. For many families, a shared meal is the simplest and most regular way to enjoy being together, share news and interests, and solve problems. Children who share frequent meals with their loved ones in a warm, respectful environment tend to have better school results, better health, and fewer problem behaviours.

Family meals can even help teens who’ve experienced cyber bullying. Studies of more than 18,000 teens in North America and more than 5,000 teens in Scotland found that teens who had been cyber bullied were less likely to suffer serious harm to their wellbeing if they ate dinner with their families several times a week. Family meals are not a magical solution; even teens with strong family support can still suffer terrible harm from bullying. But for many families, regular meals seem to provide one more layer of protection.

 

Healthy habits

Eating together regularly can also help teens stay healthy during tough times. For example, a study of more than 500 teens in Spain found that those who’d been bullied were less likely to develop depression if they managed to keep up healthy eating habits, such as regular meals and plenty of fruit and vegetables. And a study of more than 13,000 teens in the US found that those who ate breakfast every day were less likely to be bullied than those who did not.

These issues are complex, and there’s no simple ‘cause and effect’. And parents may find many different ways to nurture their teens, supervise them, and care for them. But for parents who are looking for a way to deepen their connection with their teens, regular meals can be one good place to start.

 

Getting started

Raising Children Network provides great advice about enjoying family meals and cooking with kids. Their tips include:

  • Make time to eat together, whether it’s a nightly dinner, Sunday lunch, or a picnic in the backyard.
  • Involve children in choosing and preparing meals, even if it’s just washing the veggies or setting the table.
  • Give everyone time to eat comfortably.
  • Encourage children to offer food to others.
  • Use meal times to learn about everyone’s day – e.g. ‘What was the best thing that happened today?’
  • Praise children for good manners, sharing, and trying new things.

The dinner table can also be one place to start those tricky conversations about topics like bullying, cyber safety and porn. Dolly’s Dream Parent Hub provides tips for parents on how to have the ‘awkward conversations’, including:

  • Think about what you want to say ahead of time.
  • Do something fun together while you talk – this could include cooking or decorating the dinner table.
  • Start with a hypothetical – e.g. ‘What would you do if you felt uncomfortable about someone contacting you online?’
  • Ask prompting questions like ‘Is cyber bullying a problem at your school?’
  • Listen calmly.
  • Highlight examples of good behaviour.
  • Have house rules for speaking respectfully to each other.

And what about devices at the dinner table?

Some families hate devices at the dinner table, some love them, and others feel conflicted. During to COVID-19 isolation, many families have used videoconferencing to enjoy ‘virtual dinners’ with loved ones they can’t see in person. It helps to:

  • Work with your teens to set tech rules for the whole family.
  • Model good behaviour – don’t use your own phone at the table while telling your teens to put theirs down!
  • If you don’t want tech at the table, consider a ‘cool-down’ period before dinner – e.g. five minutes to finish on devices and put them away.
  • If you do allow tech at the table, consider how to use it to strengthen the experience of being together as a family – e.g. videoconferencing with a grandparent, or sharing social media messages that made you feel happy or unhappy today.
  • For other thoughts, explore the Family Dinner Project.

Sometimes things come up around the dinner table that cause concern for parents. If this happens, consider contacting a free, confidential support service such as Parentline or Kids Helpline.