Have you heard? Family meals have so many benefits for kids, including things like a protective effect against depression and drug addiction, as well as health benefits overall. (1, 2) That’s all good and well, but what happens for busy families where sitting down for mealtimes seems like a far off dream? Are the benefits of family meals really worth the stress they can cause?
What “Family Meals” Means
In our culture, we tend to think of family meals as sitting down at the table all together, with the table set, a perfect, healthy meal, and everyone eating cleanly and perfectly like they’re a family out of a 1960's sitcom. Just the thought of aiming for that stresses me out!
As a busy parent of two, there’s also no way that that would happen! Except maybe on a holiday with a bunch of extended family. And even then, we’d never have a shot at the perfectly clean and presentable part of it!
If you’re in the same boat, I want you to take a minute and go with me on what family meals should really mean.
My Definition Of Family Meals
Family meals aren’t about the food. I know there is “meals” in the name, but it’s really not about the food. We get so caught up on having a perfectly balanced meal. One with so many fruits, veggies, grains, protein, etc available.
So many of the parents I talk to think of family meals as something you would invite a friend to. Or something you would serve at a dinner party. No wonder the thought of them is a no-go!
Anything and everything counts for a family meal. Frozen pizza? Check! Takeout pizza? Also check. Anything you can scrounge up from the fridge and pantry, including just some chunks of cheese and crackers? Also counts!
Because again, at the end of the day, it’s not about the food!
Where To Have Them
Along those same lines, family meals don't even have to be at a table! Sitting around on the floor having an indoor picnic? That counts. Outdoor picnic? Yep, that too. Eating in your car together? Sure, why not.
For a family meal to be a family meal, the food and the location don’t matter. Honestly. So what does matter?
The ONE Thing You Need For Family Meals
Really, what you need is your family! But there’s a caveat.
While you might need your family to have a family meal, what your “family” means on any given night can vary.
So often, parents and kids have different schedules. Maybe one parent works late, or a night shift. Maybe you have an older child that has a class one night.
It’s really easy to say well, we don’t all have the same schedules so we can’t have family meals.
But you still can!
Because when we drill down to the true protective factor of family meals, it’s all about the connection. The benefits don’t come from literally everyone in your family needing to be at the table for every single meal, and if they’re not, then oops no benefit! The connection aspect can come from one adult sitting and eating, or even just connecting, with the child while they eat.
Does that mean that that’s the hands down ideal family meal situation? No, it doesn’t. But reality isn’t about the ideal. Or even what research says is what works. Reality is about how you can make something work for your family. And as is so often the case in feeding kids, a little bit is better than nothing.
How To Structure Family Meals With Kids
So now that we’ve got who’s at family meals out of the way, let’s talk about what actually happens when you sit down to have them. Even if it’s not at an actual table.
Since connection is really what we’re focused on, you might imagine that phones, tablets, TVs and other distracting devices are better left for another time. Those types of things interfere with actually connecting.
Which means that something like sitting on the couch and watching TV while you eat doesn’t help with the goal of family meals. And if you have a baby, sitting with them while they eat and you are on your phone also doesn’t really count. The missing ingredient in both is the connection.
Enjoyment Is Key
Once you’ve figured out a way to get your family in one place, and to have a meal together while connecting, it’s time to think about how that connection will go.
If you follow traditional feeding advice, you might be tempted to try and control the amount of food your child eats at a given meal. You might ask them to take one bite, you might ask them to stay at the table far longer than they can developmentally handle. Or any number of other common feeding habits.
What all of these will produce, at some point or another, is a battle at the table. And those battles are not at all conducive to connecting at, and enjoying, the family meal.
One of the biggest keys to family meals really is that they’re enjoyable. They’re a time that you can talk about your day, or what you’re going to do later if it’s at breakfast. It’s a time you can establish boundaries and trust and so many other important parts of parent-child relationships.
If the entire meal is spent arguing, coercing, or policing what your child eats, it’s not a place that you or your child is going to want to spend time. Which is going to make family meals more stressful.
Need help with mealtimes?
Mealtimes don't have to be full of battles! For help with how to structure meals so they are not full of battles over food and behaviors, grab the course Mastering Mealtimes!
If you need to start with just one meal a week where you get the hang of family meals, that is better than nothing! If you want to start with picnics together, that is a great start! Making your own traditions and things your child will look forward to is a great way to further the benefits of family meals.
Pizza Fridays and movie nights are some of my fondest memories from childhood. Maybe you did Sunday dinners in your family, or want to start with your own Sunday dinner tradition. Whatever way family meals work for you, it’s okay!
The key to remember really is the connection. Talking to your kids, focusing on enjoying the time, and really connecting with them is what it’s all about. Not what food you serve or where you do it.