My partner finishes work later than me of an evening, so on weekdays I give our seven and four-year-old daughters their dinner at 5.30pm and then we have a different meal later once they're in bed. It’s all such a mad rush, so I grab quick children's favourites from the freezer for them. And when they're being fussy, I do sometimes let them watch television or their iPad while they're eating. It would be much easier if we could all eat together, but he thinks that as long as they're eating, that's the main thing. But I'm worried we're falling into bad habits. Does it really matter?
I think it really does matter. As a mother of four I know how hectic life with young kids can be, and I can easily see why opportunities for your family to sit down together at mealtimes are being squeezed out. And the easy availability of convenience foods - snacks and instant food - is further eroding the chances of enjoying regular family meals together.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Spain, nearly 80% of children expect to have meals with their families. In contrast, in the UK it has dropped to only 33%.
Sadly, as a country, we seem to be rapidly abandoning a really important family custom - one that according to research can improve relationships, boost children's academic achievements and help lead teenagers to make safer choices, as well as maintaining a healthy weight - family meals!
So it’s great that you are already eating with the family at weekends and perhaps you can build on this.
I’m child of the 60s and in our family, we usually ate our evening meal together. it was one of the few set fixtures of the day. We went out to play but were expected to be home in time for our evening meal, and to help prepare it. Sitting round the table together was a great chance to catch up, offload, tell stories and celebrate the food. And we broadly managed to do the same thing with our children - something that I think benefitted us all.
Of course, at times, due to work or other commitments, this may be difficult to arrange – for so many reasons. But it is worth looking for creative opportunities make it work.
Eating your food in front of the TV, or while watching screens, even if you are all together, just doesn’t have the same impact. You will all be distracted and pay little attention to the food or each other. I firmly believe that families that eat together, stay together. Your partner might be interested to hear that there is a wealth of research showing the widespread benefits for children (and for their parents) of regularly sharing family meals.
If you cook and eat together you are more likely to have a healthy diet, to eat more fruit and veg, and to maintain a healthy weight. But beyond better nutrition, children learn so much by watching us, preparing, and enjoying healthy varied food, helping out, and being part of the team. It’s a safe, predictable time to chat, repair relationships and have fun. But beyond that, eating together provides a chance to listen to what is happening in your child's day and respond to it, so helping them develop thoughtfulness and emotional resilience. And it is teaching them that when they do have worries, or unfortunate experiences, such as being teased or bullied, they are more able to communicate with you. Instead of holding it all in and keeping secrets, they have a time and place that they can share their worries and be listened to.
These conversations are also important for building self-esteem and body image. The benefit even extends to better academic performance. Interestingly, it is also linked in the future to less self-destructive behaviours such as alcohol and substance use, or depression in teenagers.
So, what might you do?
👉 You could try moving meals later for the kids and a bit earlier for you and your partner, so you can eat together a couple of days a week. And aim to set consistent times. The kids will probably love it, and eat better, while you only need to make one meal! If your table is buried in ‘stuff’ try and clear the space so it’s more welcoming! And if you don’t have space, have a picnic on the floor, or sit on the sofa together but without the TV as it’s about connecting and sharing food together.
👉 Do plan ahead, and start with easy family favourites, so everyone is happy. Gradually include a wider variety of foods and on some days let them choose the menu. Save the vindaloo for another day. It is also a good time, if you aren’t already doing it, to give them appropriate tasks preparing food or setting the table as part of the ‘team’.
👉 It is crucial that you set an example – children take their lead from you! If you celebrate different foods, don’t use mobile phones while you eat, and make it a calm and nurturing time, they are likely to follow your lead. It's also about creating an environment where you enjoy food together, conversations are meaningful and fun, and prioritise healthy choices where possible.