Family Meals Improve Connection and Confidence

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With today’s busy family schedules, sitting down to share a meal may seem like a luxury. It is, however, one of the most effective strategies to strengthen family communication, prevent high risk behaviours in youth, and improve school performance. Research[1] indicates that eating together as a family at least four times a week has positive effects on children’s health and social development. 

There is no need to get hung up on the term “family” says Community Nutritionist and family meal advocate, Hélène Dufour. The reality is that children and youth grow up in a variety of family configurations. The key is for children and youth to regularly eat a meal (any meal!) with a meaningful adult in their lives.

If any of the following sound familiar, here are a few tips to introduce or increase family meals in your home.

“We have different work schedules and activities, dinner together is impossible!”

  • Try breakfast together instead of dinner. It may be easier to align morning routines.

  • Try sandwiches instead of something hot. If the time required to prepare a hot meal is preventing the family from eating it together, go simple!

  • Involve all family members in food preparation - share the load, teach lifelong skills in the kitchen and have fun with food.

“What about the tv? Does it count when we watch and eat together?”

  • Turn off the TV, record your favourite shows for later and use the time to connect with your child, be present and listen.

  • Avoid distractions by turning off phones and other devices.

  • For young children, mealtime talks are a way to teach table manners, social skills, and to reinforce family values.

  • For older children, mealtime talks are an opportunity to learn about what’s important to your child during a period when they are becoming increasingly independent.

“We end up fighting or nagging, mealtime isn’t pleasant.”

  • Focus on making mealtime stress-free. Save sensitive or challenging subjects for another time.

  • Talk about what makes you happy, express gratitude and/ or compliment the person you are eating with.

  • Ask your child to describe their day.  Then listen more than you speak.

  • Use conversation starters[2] to help spark positive discussions.

 

In a national survey of youth in New Zealand, researchers found that frequent family meals were positively associated with strong family relationships. They concluded that the family meal offers a low-cost and tangible strategy to improve family well-being. 

In a study of over 24,000 6-11 year olds, those that ate family meals more frequently were associated with more positive social skills and decreased problematic social behaviours. 

While there seems to be agreement in the literature about the connection of family meals (including frequency) to reducing high risk behavioursin youth (such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, violence, sexual behaviour and disordered eating)  one meta-analysis suggests that more research is required to fully understand the protective mechanisms involved.

If you are out of practice with family conversations or are too exhausted after a busy day to spark a dialogue, use conversation starters to connect. A question can be an easy way to get people talking.

Follow the link for a set of cards that can be printed and used at home. They were developed by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Island Health.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.