Making mealtimes family time

Dinner time can often be a struggle but building a new routine may help.
Dinner time can often be a struggle but building a new routine may help. Photo: Getty Images

Emma Fahy Davis is realistic – the idea of her family coming together for a meal and the reality of the chaos with five children can be stressful. Research from Cornell University identified that engaging with our children over a shared meal each day can transform the way our children eat, how they engage with each other and the opportunity for connection between adults and children. So now that summer is here and the days are longer how can families change the way they spend time together when they share a meal?

Jo Turner, author of 'Mealtimes without Mayhem' and mum of two is sympathetic to the challenges of getting to that time of the night when the bath, story, bed routine is a very real light at the end of a long tunnel. 'It's all about building a mealtime routine and making it fun,' she explains.

Her practical book covers ten secrets to successful family mealtimes, ‘first set a mealtime that works for everyone so if you have really small children you may need to make the transition from 5.30 to 6.30’ to take into account parents and work commitments. She also suggests that you get children involved, ‘Kids love to help out with getting the veggies out of the fridge, setting the table or folding the napkins - make them feel apart of the routine and they will soon love it. When they get a bit older they can help prepare or serve the meals this helps the fussy eaters of the family - if they are involved in the choices they are more likely to eat the meal!’ Ideas like turning the television off and celebrating every mealtime success can nurture the way your children view eating and family time.

So how do these strategies translate to day-to-day life? Emma and her five children aged between 17 months and 10 years agreed to take on the challenge to put Jo’s theories in to practice and to diarise their journey of a week’s worth of mealtimes at the table. She shares her triumphs and tribulations and the goal of increasing her children’s vegetable intake. Something every parent can relate to!


Menu: Grilled chicken burgers with avocado and pineapple

Food consumed: Serve yourself from the middle of the table

Worked: The children ate more vegetables than if I had dished them up

Didn’t work: My 5 year old hoarded all the carrots, which caused some arguments!



Menu: Burritos

Food consumed: Serve yourself from the middle of the table

Worked: The kids were more adventurous with the vegetable fillings and my 5 year old tried lettuce for the first time

Didn’t work: It was just a little messier than usual!


Menu: Spaghetti Bolognese

Food consumed: 3 of the kids went back for seconds, my 4 year old only picked at her dinner

Worked: My 17 month old joined in the fun as I chopped her spaghetti up for her

Didn’t work: My 5 year old struggles to sit still at the best of times. All of us eating together made dinner time stretch out longer as there were lots of conversations about all kinds of things so she struggled to last the distance. When I asked her to come back to the table she played with her food and poured water in her bowl!


Menu: Chicken stir fry with rice

Food consumed: My 10 year old ate everything; the younger four ate all the rice and chicken and picked at the vegetables

What worked: We had lots of laughs identifying some of the unusual vegetables in the frozen mix. They thought bamboo shoots and bok choy were hilarious!

What didn’t work: It was a smooth dinner even though rice is messy


Menu: Local night markets – butter chicken, fish and chips, gozleme and ice cream

Food consumed: We went with our extended family and everyone ate communal style – even my 17 month old ate the Butter Chicken!

Worked: The sharing of the food was a great way to generate conversation with the children’s grandparents and uncle

Didn’t work: Nothing – it was lovely.


Menu: Rice paper rolls with surimi, crab and vegetables

Food consumed: Serve yourself from the middle of the table

Worked: The raw vegetables and dipping sauce were a hit!

Didn’t work: None of the kids liked the rice paper but loved the filling.


Menu: Slow cooked pork with roast vegetables

Food consumed: Everyone went back for seconds!

Worked: The kids convinced Dad to join them as he works late and often misses dinner (which is one of the reasons why I let the dinner at the table slide)

Didn’t work: Dad’s bad table manners…

Emma felt that overall the experience gave her an insight into the way her children eat and how they all interact. "The girls are now demanding family dinner," she says, which is a great result. Jo Turner agrees ‘Like anything it takes time to build new routines and change behaviors so remember to be patient, be persistent and roll with the punches’. Taking on the idea that getting children involved, encouraging new opportunities to try different food and creating a stress free environment that caters to all ages can see anyone master mealtimes without the hysteria this summer.

What are your top tips for managing the dinner table with small people?