Psychologist David Coleman's parenting advice column
Glenisk's resident child psychologist on why family mealtimes are really important:
We parents get pulled in many and varied directions. Frequently it can seem like there just isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done. Family mealtimes can easily become a casualty in our busy lifestyles. This is a real pity because mealtimes may be the best and only time when everyone in the family can gather. It is really important for children to have times in the day when they can really talk to parents rather than simply passing them by in a whirl of activity or retreating into the isolation of the TV or computer-games. You may be surprised at what research shows about the benefits of family mealtimes.
Children who sit with their family for regular meals are less likely to smoke, take drugs and drink alcohol. They tend to do better in school and have fewer mental health problems.
They tend to eat a more balanced and healthy diet. We are the most important role-models for our children and so we need to remember that they need to observe us to be able to learn things. What food to eat, and how to eat it, is a skill that toddlers learn from watching carefully and from subsequent trial and error. If they aren’t sitting with us for meals then they miss out on that big chance to learn. In the same way, when we sit to eat and chat we learn from each other, through the conversation, about values, morals and beliefs that we each hold. This gives us opportunities to bond and form relationships with our children.
Eating together as a family increases children's confidence and can also teach them how to behave with others.
Increasing the social aspect of meals involves trying to include everybody at the table. This means pulling babies in high chairs close so they are part of the group as opposed to being sitting outside the group. It might also mean having a plan in your own head of topics to talk about. This can include reminiscing about the activities of the day; making plans for later in the day or the next day; discussing what happened at play times; talking about school, friends, teachers, uncles, aunts; remembering things from your own childhood; telling stories about when your children were younger and so on.
Preparing and serving food can be a communal and very fun affair. It’s good to involve children from a young age in the preparation of a meal.
You’ll be impressed at how accomplished they can get at spooning, pouring, measuring and even cutting. Similarly, you can involve them in the setting of the table whether that is laying out mats for under the plates or setting out cutlery or crockery. When children feel part of the preparation they are more likely to feel part of the meal too. So if you’re trying to determine what to prioritise amongst the many competing demands of family life think about food and think about the warmth, nurturing and togetherness that comes from eating it together. © David Coleman, 2007.
David's new book, 'Parenting is Child's Play' is available now in your local book store.