Healthy Families Series Part 3: Enjoying Mealtimes Together

People are spending less time preparing food and less time eating together with loved ones in their family. Frequently, parents are eating at different times to their children, or mealtimes are rushed or eaten in front of a screen. It is not uncommon now to see whole families eating in silence together in restaurants as they all check their respective social media accounts.

Traditionally, the family mealtime was sacrosanct – a precious time when everyone sat together, shared news and ate home cooked, healthy meals. While we may not want to go back fully to these traditional times, there is some wisdom to be preserved about the importance of family mealtimes.

A central focus of the new Parents Plus Healthy Families Programme is to encourage family mealtimes as an important family ritual. Parents are encouraged to take time to prepare meals with their children and to sit down to eat together to chat and enjoy one another’s company.

Not surprisingly family mealtimes can have lots of benefits in terms of improved family relationships and providing a relaxed time for children and adults. Regular family mealtimes also make it more likely for parents and children to eat healthy foods and to maintain good diets through the week. Below are some ideas on establishing happy family mealtimes.

Allow plenty of time for family meals
To be successful you do have to carve out time for family meals. Rushing and the pressure to eat quickly all mitigate against mealtimes being relaxed and enjoyable. A good rule is to allow about 30 minutes for sitting down together (perhaps slightly shorter for toddlers) and to get your children into a habit of sitting with you for this time.

It is also important for parents to sit down with their children to eat. Frequently, parents get into the habit of “serving” their children from the kitchen or eating at a different time. Try to sit and be present during mealtimes.

Focus on good conversation
Use mealtimes as an opportunity to chat and connect with your children and your partner. Sharing news of the day, listening to stories and even playing after-dinner games are all important parts of the mealtime ritual. Certainly, it is best to be “technology and screen free” at mealtimes so conversation and connection is prioritised.

In addition, avoid over pressurising children to eat during mealtimes. Meals often become dominated by parents trying to coax children to eat – “ just another spoon now” or “please finish your vegetables”. This can take the enjoyment out of eating and can even be counter-productive as a means to get children to eat healthy food. The best way to help children develop good eating habits is to simply put the desired food in front of them and giving them plenty of time to eat it during a relaxed family meal.

Gradually introduce new mealtime habits
As we discussed last week – the key to successfully changing a habit is to gradually introduce a change.

If you currently have no regular family meals, try scheduling one at the weekends.

If you currently have meals in front of the TV, then make a rule of sitting at the table and switching technology off.

If you have meals at different times to your children, try to have one or two when you can all sit down together.

Even if you don’t have time to prepare a home cooked meal, start by making sure to sit down together as a family to eat a takeaway or ready meal together.

Involve children in all stages of meal preparation
Children are more likely to be motivated the more involved they are. Show children how they can help at mealtimes by setting the table or pouring the drinks or by cleaning or chopping vegetables when they are able to do this.

As they get older you can teach them how to become more fully involved and even prepare a whole meal by themselves. Consider setting up a vegetable plot in the garden and getting the children to help with planting the seeds as well as harvesting and cooking the results. Make the process of learning about food as fun and enjoyable as possible.

Dealing with ‘fussy eating’ in young children
Many parents find it challenging to introduce children to new healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. Creating new habits around new healthy foods can indeed take time and patience.

Understand why your child might not like a new food: Sometimes it’s the taste, other times it can be texture. If taste is an issue try mixing the new food with a familiar sauce, if your child does not like lumps, perhaps present the new food in a smoothie.

Expect toddler resistance: Remember it is developmentally normal for toddlers in the second year to start refusing food, this is thought to be an evolutionary survival mechanism to stop them eating poisonous foods!

Be realistic and patient: Many parents have unrealistic expectations for how wide a variety of foods their young children should eat. Many children have narrow diets, that widen as they get older. Once their diet has a few healthy options their health will be fine. Focus on introducing one or two healthy foods.

Frequently introduce children to new foods: Children may have to be exposed up to 20 times to a new food before they might eat it. They might first smell it, take a small part in and out of their mouth before they even take a small bite.

Gradually introduce foods: Start with very small portions, perhaps alongside familiar foods. First, only aim for your child to tolerate the new food on her plate, before maybe taking a bite the next time.

Be creative about how you present vegetables: Carrots can be eaten raw or cooked, served in a soup, added to a smoothie or cut into batons to eat with a favourite dip not to mention ‘hidden’ in mashed potato or served in attractive shapes or in a favourite container.

Have lots of healthy foods on offer at mealtimes: Don’t focus on just one food. If they don’t like one vegetable, find an alternative they might like. Where possible, put plenty of healthy choices in front of them.

Praise small steps: It is crucial to be patient and positive and praise little small steps – “good to see you tried a bit of the apple”.

This is the third of a six-part series of articles on overcoming the challenge of bringing up healthy and happy children, by John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times newspaper in January 2019. Links to all the articles in this series are:

Part 1: Bringing up happy, healthy children
Part 2: Replacing bad habits with good ones
Part 3: Importance of mealtimes together
Part 4: Managing screens and technology at home
Part 5: Getting enough sleep and rest
Part 6: Nurturing family relationships

Browse other articles by John Sharry.
Read about John’s upcoming courses and his books.