Shortly after my oldest son, Zac, turned one, I decided I wanted us all to start eating dinner together as a family. I remember at the time it was a big decision. I enjoyed having a quiet childfree dinner with my husband after Zac had gone to bed and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to eat dinner at 5pm! But what I did know, was that I wanted to get into the habit of eating dinner together as a family and for our kids to grow up with that being the norm.
I realise that for many families this might be very difficult due to working hours or older kids being at after school activities till late or for various other reasons. But whatever your family life looks like, eating all together whenever you can is beneficial, even if it’s only over the weekends!
We’re very fortunate in that my husband is home from work early, so dinner in our house is about 5:30pm, depending on how organised I am!
When I weaned my youngest son Joshua, it seemed natural to start with food at around 5pm so it would coincide with when we ate. Yes, there are times where this is very difficult and I dream of the day when I can have a meal and not need to jump up from my chair 100 times to get some water or a wipe or some fruit or another spoon!
But now that Joshua’s over one, I realise that it’s getting a lot easier and that I really do enjoy us all sitting down and eating together at the end of the day. Despite the multiple interruptions I know it’s worth it.
The habit of us eating together at dinner time is more of a priority to me than how comfortable or uncomfortable it feels in the moment and I know it will pay off in the long run.
Why are family meals beneficial?
Children learn from copying
We know that children learn from copying others, from walking to learning how to speak and then also the less desirable things they learn from each other! Well, eating is no different. Generally, the more children are exposed to different foods and eating with others, the more easily they will accept these foods and copy what others are eating.
I’m sure most of us have had the experience of eating something and our child suddenly wants it too, often not because they know what it is but just because we or someone else is having it!
One of the best ways to help a baby or child start eating new foods it to eat it with them, or for them to eat it around others who are eating the same food. Often other children will motivate them more than us adults! So, if you have more than one child, try get them to eat together as much as possible and if you, your partner or another adult can eat with them too, even better.
Lead by example and they are more likely to eat a larger variety of foods as they grow up.
Establishing healthy eating habits
Providing that the food you are eating is healthy, eating together is a great way to introduce your child to normal healthy family foods from a young age. This will help set the standard of what is normal for them to eat and will help your child develop a healthy attitude towards food.
By eating the same healthy family foods together, and as they get older occasionally explaining why it’s beneficial to eat certain foods, you are teaching them invaluable lessons about healthy eating. The way they eat now is laying down foundations for what and how they will eat later in life.
A few months ago, Zac, my 4 year old had dinner out with some friends. On the way home he asked if we were going to have dinner at home. I was a bit confused as I knew he had just had sausages and chips (not the most healthy but ok for every now and then) so I asked him about it. He then said ‘But that can’t be dinner because we didn’t have any vegetables or salad with it!’ And it suddenly hit me that he did notice and I’d created a healthy norm at home!
If you teach your child to eat healthy foods at set meal times now, they will be more likely to continue this habit later in life when they are making their own food choices.
Eating together as a family not only helps to develop healthier eating habits, but naturally this results in healthier children too. Research has shown that children who ate with their families 3 or more times per week were less likely to be overweight and 24% more likely to eat healthier foods than children who had less than 3 family meals together per week.
The same research also showed that children who ate at least 3 meals per week together with their families were 35% less likely to develop eating disorders, (including anorexia nervous and bulimia) than those who don’t!
Improved social-emotional health
Sitting down for a meal together, especially at the end of a day not only have nutritional benefits but it’s also an excellent way to help develop open communication between family members. As you each discuss your day and listen to each other’s stories, you are helping to build healthy relationships and teaching your child invaluable lessons about communication. Children who regularly eat family meals together and talk about their days have been shown to have a better ability to understand emotions, express themselves and form positive relationships with peers.
The benefits of eating a family meal together will help your children make better food choices, maintain a healthy weight and develop healthy eating behaviours. So, whenever possible… let’s sit down and enjoy a meal together! You will not only be investing in what your child eats today but also in what they will eat in years to come!