Is Family Dinner a Thing of the Past?

Is family dinner a thing of the past? “May I please be excused from the table” is a term that almost seems archaic to me. One of my fondest memories as a child is my mother yelling “DINNNEERR!”, followed by four children racing down the stairs for the best seat at the table; a farmer herding sheep. I was at my friends house and she made us a beautiful roast accompanied with a brilliant medley of colourful vegetables. When asked if her son James was going to join us for a family dinner to which she responded, “he already ate”. I understand that sometimes it’s hard to organise dinner for everyone, especially when you have a picky child. However, after further investigation I learned that their family hardly ever sits down for a proper dinner together.

My friend would cook a separate meal for her incredibly picky child, generally plain pasta or a vegemite and cheese sandwich if he’s feeling super adventurous, and cook a separate meal for her and her partner. James would eat at the table alone in front of the television and her partner would take their meal to the bedroom and disappear for the rest of the night. I found this odd, but after visiting several other friends who practice the same dinner routine, I started to realise that this is a common trend amongst households. I am usually not one to judge, but this can promote dysfunctional family dynamics. Although one parent may be making a separate meal for their child with the intention of protecting their partner from a rambunctious dinner, they are inadvertently isolating said parent from their child which could, in turn, create a distant relationship between parent and child.

Whatever Happened?

So now I ask, whatever happened to quality family dinner time? The purpose of family dinner time may vary from family to family. One family may treasure this time as an opportunity to get the whole family together for one hour a day in everyone’s busy lives, while another may value this time to teach their children proper eating habits. However, children need to learn and develop a little bit at a time and sitting down as a family unit for dinner can help to serve more than one purpose. In this blog post I will discuss the importance of sitting down and eating as a family.

There are many benefits to eating as a family for both children and family members. Some of these benefits include promoting healthy eating habits as well as positive social habits and mental benefits. By eating as a unit you can help to build self-esteem, teach proper communication skills, manage expectations, and teach by example.

Promoting Healthy Eating Habits and Table Manners

People of all shapes and sizes eat better in groups. When we eat in a group setting, we are more likely to eat more nutrient-rich foods. With all the recent literature and studies on certain food and its nutritional value, it is evident that a home cooked meal is healthier than a Big Mac. When you cook your own meals, you can control the salt and sugar levels. You can also ensure that all the proper food groups are incorporated in your child’s diet. Additionally when you spend time in the kitchen cooking with your child, you are teaching them valuable life skills that will help to promote and sustain a healthy life style for years to come. You can also teach your child appropriate table manners like the proper use of utensils, saying “please and thank-you”, excusing themselves from the table, and helping to clear the table. This can all lead to lower risk of disordered eating, healthier body weight and can promote healthier eating habits into adulthood.

Social Habits and Mental Benefits

Eating together provides our little ones with the opportunity to broaden their vocabulary and to be more socially aware. They can learn such things as not interrupting people or speaking over people, polite response to an idea/ statement whether they agree or disagree, and proper sentence structure and annunciation. Family dinner also gives children the chance to be heard. When they are provided with a safe space to share their day, they are encouraged to express their emotions and ideals. Communicating has been directly linked to reducing depression and increasing self-esteem. By listening and responding to your little one, you are inadvertently saying “I respect your voice and opinions and value any ideals you may have. You are important to me and this family.”

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Many hands make light work. Try to involve your children every step of the way. This includes planning, grocery shopping and cooking to help promote important life skills and prioritising healthy eating options. Most importantly, kids are more likely to eat the foods they help you prepare. In saying this, dinner time chores should be shared amongst the family. It is important to divide kitchen duties, so either parent isn’t alone in cooking, serving and cleaning. As brilliantly stated from a Canadian Dietician who failed to leave their name, “Mealtime can be looked at as an opportunity or a chore. If it’s viewed as an opportunity, then all sorts of possibilities are created; if it’s viewed as a chore, then the possibilities don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if the food is filet mignon, or pizza and salad.” Often, children want to discuss topics that may be uncomfortable or taboo. It is important to discuss these subjects with compassion and care to ensure your child feels comfortable to openly communicate with the family. Creating a safe space for communication will encourage your child to discuss more pressing matters later in life.

Boosts Vocabulary 

Sitting down for a nightly meal serves more than just nutritional value, it is great for the brain, the body and the spirit. A study in the Washington Post found that dinner time conversation boosts vocabulary more so than being read aloud to. The studies found that, “the researchers counted the number of rare words- those not found on a list of 3,000 most commonly used words- that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud”. Children who have a larger vocabulary can read earlier and more easily. Most importantly, when you’re having family dinner it is important to turn off all electronic distractions. Studies have found that young children who watch TV during dinner are more likely to be overweight by the time they’re in the third grade.

Thoughts From ToBeMe

At ToBeMe, we realise the cognitive and social benefits of sitting down and eating as a unit. We have 5 meals a day where the children are encouraged to sit in our village square and eat as a group. Here they learn appropriate table manners as well as work on their communication skills. These meals include Breakfast, Morning Tea, Lunch, afternoon Tea and Late Snack, which are all included in the daily fee. Our educators are encouraged to sit and eat with the children to ensure they mirror proper table manners. This includes self-serving, using utensils correctly, politely asking for seconds and excusing themselves from the table when they have finished eating. Our little ones are asked to scrape and rinse their plates and return their dirty dishes to the lunch trolley. At ToBeMe, we realise that every opportunity is a learning opportunity and we hope to capitalise on every day to day experiences with our little ones to prepare them for life beyond ToBeMe, helping to spark a love of life long learning and inspire them to understand what it means ‘ToBeMe.’

In most industrialised countries, a lot of families have less time to spend quality time together. We don’t farm together, build together or spend time together performing other household tasks. Dinner time is the most concrete means of communication and connecting with each other. A daily family dinner is like a lap bar on the roller-coaster ride of adolescence; it helps to prevent the chance of your child falling out of their seat by succumbing to problematic behaviours. A family meal doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet creation worthy of My Kitchen Rules screen time. Rather, it’s about communication and quality time with your loved ones. Family dinner may be the only time in a day when a family can share a positive, heart warming experience. What seems like small moments can accumulate to a stronger connection outside of the kitchen.

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