With a new school year fast approaching, it is a great time to set goals together as a family and one of the areas that I believe is of utmost importance is dinner time.
As parents we all worry about our children's nutrition and fighting dinnertime battles is a point of stress in a lot of families. One of the most important things we can do as a family is to eat together at the end of the day. Studies show that families who eat together save money, have better nutrition outcomes and develop higher order social skills.
In 2008 a study by Dr Rebecca Huntley titled “Because Mealtimes Matter”, the quantitative survey found that 86% of families believed that eating together at mealtimes was important and that the family meal still retains much of its symbolic power. Yet with so many external pressures such as after school activities, one or both parents working long hours and the differing needs of young children, teenagers and parents, actually seeing this togetherness is far from a reality for many families.
But it’s not only about the frequency of getting together. The report found that as much as 93% of families surveyed ate together, 77% of those getting together more than 5 times per week. Perhaps more important than sitting down together is the quality of the time spent enjoying food, talking about each others days and having interesting and varied conversations on a daily basis. Dinner can be a crucial time to have everyone in the household together in one place at one time. The study found that extending dinnertime to beyond the average 25 minutes would have large benefits for fostering good communication within families.
Eating together also provides an opportunity for adults and older children to model good eating behaviours in front of younger children. The biggest battle at our dinner table is getting children to stop omitting whole food groups from their diet. My daughter struggles to eat any kind of protein whereas my son refuses to eat any sort of vegetable. Since our family has made the commitment to eat together more often, it has been easier to convince fussy eaters to at least try their least favourite foods when they can clearly see others at the table with balanced plates.
Modelling healthy eating habits at the dinner table also extends to sensible portion sizes. Did you know that children as young as 5 can be allowed to choose how much food they would like to fill their plate with? By eating sensible amounts yourself, younger children learn that it’s okay to go back for seconds of vegetables and salads, but it’s more sensible to have just one serving of proteins and starchy foods. Also it’s important not to pressure children to finish everything on their plates, they are luckily equipped with the ability to stop eating when they are full. Foster this skill now and it is likely to continue into adulthood and stay with them for life.
Here are a few helpful ideas to help get you started:
Plan your meals. Having a weekly plan takes all the daily thought and angst out of dinnertime. Equally, make sure you have shopped for the week ahead, ensuring that everything you need to make a healthy dinner is on hand.
Let all family members chose at least one meal that they would like to eat that week. Personal investment is helpful in eating compliance. It also takes the pressure off just one person being responsible for coming up with all meal ideas.
Consider time-saving cooking methods such as using a slow cooker or keeping meals simple and healthy, for example, grilled meats and steamed vegetables are an easy option. A meal doesn't have to take you hours to prepare for it to be nutritious and tasty.
Use weekends to prepare meals for the freezer to simply reheat after a long day at work or on busy afternoons with the kids.
Some packaged or convenience meals are okay to use, such as bags of salad or marinated meat, just make sure you mix and match these with your own fresh foods. Sometimes having just one component of a meal pre-prepared can take the pressure off at dinner time.
Switch off the TV and surrender all devices (yes that includes you too. No checking emails or Facebook on your phone!).
Eat at the dinner table and not on the couch. Being around the table encourages eye contact and conversation.
Try and get everyone to help with one aspect of the meal. It could be in the planning, meal preparation, setting the table or cleaning. This reinforces the notion that dinner is a family experience and it’s not just one person’s job.
Now get cooking and get eating as a family. There are lots of great family dinners to inspire you in the Essential Kids recipe section.