Debbie Gray, manager of Mental HealthScreening and Early Identification, offersthese tips for families who want to discover(or rediscover) the benefits and joys of eatingtogether more.
The adults in a family meal can vary: forexample, family meals can be as beneficialwith one adult as with two or more. Andthey can be with a mother, a father, agrandparent, an extended family memberor a guardianAsk all family members to commit tohaving one to three more meals a weektogetherAny meal can be family time: eatingtogether at breakfast, lunch or supper isequally beneficialTurn off computers, TVs, cellphones,smartphones and other devices that candistract during mealsShare the load: take turns preparing food,setting the table and cleaning upAsk all family members to help decidewhat the meal will beInclude all family members in preparingthe meal (even little ones can help mixsomething up in a bowl)
Give everyone a chance to have a say. Getthe conversation going with ice-breakerquestions such as: What was the weirdestthing you saw today? What was yourbiggest challenge today? Who did youhave the most fun with today?
Encourage listeningCook once and eat twice. To cut down onthe time you spend in the kitchen, makeenough food at one meal to have leftoversthe next or another dayEnjoy yourselves. Eating together is meantto be a pleasure.
More than food
Family meals are about more thanfood. They’re social and cultural andoften linked to ethnicity and religion.Food can reflect our independence (atoddler’s refusal to eat her mashed peascan be her first act of decision-making)and our dependence (newborns andthose who are severely disabled,injured or ill depend on others for theirnutritional needs).
“Food is very ritualistic,” says
Dr. Cynthia Mannion, an associate
professor at the University of Calgary's
Faculty of Nursing who specializes
in nutrition and health. “Family
dining reminds us we’re human and
who our kin are. There’s kinship
Bandali and other experts say these
rituals instil a sense of belonging, of
culture and of family values and goals.
Eating together with extended family
(grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins
and such) and friends during holidays,
milestones and special occasions
ingrains this sense even further and
contributes to the well-being of children
and adults alike.
“Eating together really contributes
to your overall health in so many
ways,” says Debbie Gray, manager of
Mental Health Screening and Early
Identification for AHS. “When families
sit down together to eat, hopefully
they’re talking with one another and
the parents are ‘checking in’ with their
kids and the kids are ‘checking in’
with their parents. This connectivity is
vital to healthy and supportive family
Gray says some families have
difficulty connecting because they’re so
preoccupied or are so busy they don’t
take (or make) time to sit down and talk
over a meal.
“Mealtimes are often a victimof time crunches,” Gray says. “We[North Americans] have forgotten theimportance of eating together, butEuropeans really understand the whole
A learning experience
Family dining is also purposeful.
It’s around the dinner table—orkitchen island, breakfast table orwherever else family meals are served—that children learn about food, andwhat and how much to eat. Bandali sayswith parents as inspiration and rolemodels, kids learn to appreciate roastedsquash and steamed cauliflower, tofinish their milk and to use a knife andfork. Often children come to like whattheir parents like: when moms eat lotsof vegetables and fruits, their daughterseat more vegetables and fruits.
As well, children of all ages learnabout manners and etiquette: saying“please,” “thank you” and “may I beexcused?” and chewing with theirmouths closed. They also learn howto carry on a conversation, whichinvolves listening and expandingtheir vocabulary every bit as much asspeaking and exchanging ideas andopinions.
“We socialize the next generation
of people around the dinner table,”
Mannion says. “The relationship people
have with food is intriguing . . . we
know that when a toddler is allowed to
play with his food he’ll become a better
eater. We know many eating disorders
can stem from control issues and
Gray says “the rules” of family dining
depend on the family.
“Family meals don’t have to have arigid setup or structure. Families canorganize their meals together in a waythat works for them.”
making time for
For more on eating together, includinga printable tip sheet, see applemag.ca.