Boost Health & Happiness with Family Dinners

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    Family Mealtimes: Why do they Matter?

    Mealtimes that Nourish Body & Soul

    In today's fast-paced world, the tradition of family dinners is often sidelined by the busy schedules of both parents and children. However, the importance of family mealtimes should not be underestimated, given the significant benefits identified through research. 

    Building on the connections made with family and friends, through family meals, can provide a powerful platform for encouraging healthy eating behaviours and making positive food choices for you and the whole family.

    Studies have consistently shown that families dining together at least four times a week experience positive impacts on children's development. These shared meals are linked to a reduced risk of obesity, lower likelihood of engaging in substance abuse, decreased rates of eating disorders, and an enhanced probability of high school graduation.

    Reflecting on the past, family meal times once featured more structured, sit-down dinners every night. Contrastingly, today's family meals often unfold in a hurried manner, with members eating in shifts due to various commitments. Additionally, there's an increased reliance on convenience or pre-prepared foods. Revisiting the practice of regular family dinners could serve as a cornerstone for not only promoting healthier eating habits but also fostering stronger family bonds and communication.

    Let’s Make Mealtimes Matter!

    As we approach the festive season of Christmas, New Year, Australia Day, and the summer holidays, it's a perfect time to anticipate the joy and togetherness these occasions bring. These celebrations often centre around shared meals, creating ideal opportunities for strengthening bonds with family and friends. Embracing this season gives us a chance to focus on the power of coming together, not just to celebrate but also to nurture healthy eating behaviours and make positive food choices for ourselves and our loved ones. Let's use this time to build connections and set the stage for a tradition of healthy, shared family meals.

    The Health Benefits of Sharing Mealtimes with Family & Friends

    Current research unequivocally shows that mealtimes shared with family and/ or friends are positively associated with health benefits and wellbeing as well as building stronger family relationships. Family meals provide the ideal opportunity for spouses, parents, friends and grandparents to role model good eating behaviour. 

    Some of the health benefits associated with eating family meals include:

    • Healthier and more varied food choices and eating patterns seen in children, adolescents and adults, with increased vegetable and fruit intake and decreased soft drink consumption.
    • Less disordered eating, less use of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, better manners and communication skills in adolescents.
    • Better mental health and happiness and reduced levels of stress and depressive symptoms in children and adults. 
    • Improved academic performance and increased vocabulary in teens and young children eating 5-7 family dinners per week.
    • Reduced prevalence of overweight due to eating more regular, nutritious, home cooked meals, being involved in preparation and serving of the meals with better portion control. 
    • The potential to strengthen family bonds and forge better relationships as it provides an opportunity for the whole family to be together and discuss issues from the day, positive or negative. 
    • Dinners at home are more cost effective, costing half that of a meal prepared outside the home.

    Balancing Modern Life with Traditional Dinnertime (Mealtimes)

    “Dinnertime” as we currently know it dates back to the 18th century and the nightly tradition of sharing a meal while reconnecting with loved ones remains an important ritual in many households. The practice of preparing and sharing a meal together is however decreasing worldwide. Dinnertime is often put aside due to changes in family dynamics, work commitments, school activities etc. Eating healthy and nutritious food regularly as a family can be challenging as our lives are busy and finding time to cook and eat together can prove harder than we think. In order to be realistic for your individual circumstances, try to keep it simple and plan ahead. 

    8 Tips to Encourage Healthy Mealtimes

    Here are some tips to encourage healthy shared meals in your home even on busy evenings:

    1. Remember the basics and keep it simple – Make 1 meal for the whole family (unless small tweaks are needed for confirmed allergies). Meals should be made of whole foods, mostly plants (vegetables and fruit, legumes, pulses, whole grains), a combination of smart carbohydrates, lean protein, good fats. 
    2. Get into the meal habit and maintain structure. Aim to eat dinner together (with family or friends) 5-7 times a week, setting regular mealtimes to share the same food at the same time. Important components include sitting facing each other, sharing the same food, turning off the TV, putting away toys and electronic devices. 
    3. Do a little planning. Use the weekend or an ‘off day’ to plan meals, shop and prep for the week ahead. Involve the family in choosing meals they like or wish to try. Pair familiar with unfamiliar food, preferred with less-preferred food. Have a ‘cook-up’ and prepare some meals beforehand. This will ensure regular mealtimes can be achieved on busy nights.
    4. Make your freezer work for you. When you make a meal that the family enjoys (e.g. roast, stew or stir-fry), double it and freeze the other half for crazy nights. Keep frozen vegetables in the freezer as quick go-to’s.
    5. In winter, slow cookers are a great way to prep wholesome meals early in the morning, ready for dinner in the evening. 
    6. Keep it fun and interesting. Have picnics outside in summer, carpet picnics inside in winter, pizza and burger nights, themed nights e.g. Mexican. Don’t be afraid to use disposable plates and cups for easy clean up.
    7. Use the weekends to encourage the fun element of food. Creating meals together in the kitchen will reinforce the pleasurable aspect of food preparation, and encourage nutritious meals shared together. This could include making pizza on a Friday night together, helping decorate the table or mixing a random salad.
    8. Make mealtimes pleasant, cultivate the attitude that it is a privilege to be there, and expect family members to contribute to the pleasure of it all. Allowing self-serving food is a great way to involve individuals in their own meal as well as learning to self-regulate portions. 

    Family Mealtimes and Child Development

    Transitioning your child to family meals is a significant step in their nutrition journey, with the significance of family meals extending far beyond the dining table, especially when it comes to child development. Regular family dinners are a fertile ground for nurturing essential aspects of a child's growth. For instance, these meals become a natural setting for children to enhance their language skills. Engaging in conversations with adults and siblings, they learn new words, expressions, and the art of storytelling. Family meals are instrumental in developing emotional intelligence. Children learn to read emotions, express their feelings, and empathise with others, all in the informal, safe environment of their home. Academically, the structure and routine of regular mealtimes provide a sense of security and stability, which can lead to better focus and performance in school. The routine of sitting down, discussing the day's events, or sharing stories can significantly contribute to a child's cognitive development and academic success. In essence, family mealtimes are not just a time for eating; it's a time to learn  life skills that foster holistic development in children.

    Family Mealtimes & Nutritional Education

    Family meals are an invaluable opportunity for imparting nutritional education directly at the dinner table. These gatherings are the perfect platform for teaching children about the essentials of a balanced diet. As various dishes make their way to the table, parents can illustrate the importance of different food groups and their contributions to overall health. This interactive and practical approach makes learning about healthy eating engaging for children. Discussions around portion control during these meals help children grasp how much to eat and the significance of moderation for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Family dinners also become a crucial time to instil a recognition and appreciation of diverse, healthy foods, setting the stage for a lifelong positive relationship with nutrition. Involving children in meal planning and preparation is another effective way to deepen their understanding and interest in what constitutes nutritious, balanced eating. Thus, family meals evolve beyond mere eating occasions, becoming enriching experiences that shape healthy and informed food choices; making mealtimes matter.

    Making Mealtimes Fun: Engaging Children in Meal Preparation

    Involving children in meal preparation is not only a fun activity but also an educational experience that can foster a sense of responsibility and a lasting interest in healthy eating. For younger children, simple tasks like washing vegetables, stirring batter, or setting the table can be exciting and make them feel involved. As they grow older, encourage them to take on more complex roles like measuring ingredients, chopping (under supervision), or even following a simple recipe. Teenagers can be given the responsibility of planning and cooking an entire meal occasionally. This hands-on involvement helps children understand the effort that goes into meal preparation and makes them more likely to appreciate and enjoy the food they helped create. It also offers a practical way to teach them about nutrition, cooking techniques, and food safety. By involving children in the kitchen, you're not just making meal preparation a family affair; you're equipping them with valuable life skills and instilling healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.

    Making Mealtimes Matter!

    Making small changes towards regular mealtimes will generate positive emotions and memories for you and your family that can contribute to long-term behaviour food change.

    So, as we look ahead to a new year, consider protecting this sacred family ritual at all costs. Think about prioritising shared meals and regular dinnertime and making it part of you and your family’s healthy lifestyle. 

    Let’s make mealtimes matter again!

    Before starting Simple Steps Nutrition, Gina worked within specialised paediatric and maternity hospitals for over 10 years as well private practice and government settings in the UK, South Africa and Australia.

    Her qualifications include:

    Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics (University Stellenbosch)
    Masters Degree in Nutrition (paediatric nutrition and food allergies)
    Certified fertility, pregnancy and postnatal dietitian
    Internationally certified Lifestyle Medicine Professional