Everyone Sitting at the Table: The Power of Family Meals

By: Emily Mitchell, Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley and Northern Illinois University Dietetic Intern & Candidate for Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics

When was the last time your entire family sat down for a meal together? You are an extremely influential role model for your child, and your actions and emotions are essential for your child’s growth and development. Your child learns through experiences and modeling behaviors, so try using meal time as a chance to work towards developmental milestones!

Family Style Meal Service

The environment in which meals are served can impact a toddler’s willingness to try new foods and develop healthy dietary patterns. Family style meals have been shown to be an effective approach in creating an environment conducive to establishing healthy behaviors in the home, as well as in schools and daycare facilities. Most importantly, family style meal service approaches mealtime as a learning experience.

The objectives of family style meal service include:

  • Helping children develop positive attitudes towards nutritious foods
  • Learning to engage in social eating situations
  • Developing healthy eating patterns

myplate_greenChild involvement is integral to the concept of family style meal service, and can be done by allowing children to do the following things:

  • Be the “produce picker” at the store
  • Assist with meal preparation
  • Set the table places
  • Engage in conversation during the meal
  • Assist with clean up

Involvement in meal time may look different for each child based on their developmental abilities. When establishing family meals, it is important that children are not only provided guidance through physical assistance and engaging in appropriate social exchanges, such as taking turns, but are also given age appropriate serving utensils and dishware to establish age appropriate portions.

Meal Time- It’s Not Just About Food and Nutrition!

Again, meal time is not solely about food and nutrition; it also provides parents the opportunity to model social, communication and motor skills. Approach mealtime as a learning experience and remember that meal time serves not only to help children develop positive attitudes towards nutritious foods, but also learn to engage in social eating situations, and develop motor skills.

In order to hone in on social, communication and motor skills, involving your child in meal time is key! Conversations during meal time provide an opportunity to enhance family connection and establish relationships among all members of the family. It is a chance to share information or news about your day.

Maggie_1.jpgBenefits and Barriers to Family Meals

Family meals have been shown to foster happy, well- adjusted kids. Research has shown that family meals have many benefits, including:

  • Opportunities for modeling healthy behaviors
  • Increase autonomy in children
  • Enhance communication and social skills
  • Heighten family connectedness
  • Develop motor skills
  • Encourage nutritious meals

Despite the many benefits of family meals, it can be trouble to do because of, child behavior problems, scheduling difficulties, and lack of self-efficacy in meal preparation.

What About My Child on Tube Feedings?

How do you involve everyone in the meal? Just as children consume food orally, your child on a tube feeding can use family meal time to socialize, interact, and learn. Have meal time conversations that are about more than the food. Look beyond the calorie nourishment of meal times and include your child receiving tube feedings in meal time, so they can receive the many qualities of meal times.

fun-with-food-035What is So Powerful About Meal Time?

The real power of meal time is the interpersonal quality. Kids like eating with their families, so allow for some fun! It is understandable that meal time may be frustrating at times, but try to make it as positive of an experience as possible. Dinner may be the one time during the day that a parent and child can share a positive experience—a yummy meal, a joke, or a story. Many children strive for autonomy, so as discussed previously, involve your kids in meal time and allow for learning and laughter! These special moments created at the table help gain momentum for your child’s development away from the table.

Your challenge–schedule time spent at the table with your family into your day!

If you find your child has nutrition problems including failure to thrive, obesity, poor feeding skills, sensory disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders or others schedule a nutritional evaluation with Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley today. Learn more at eastersealsdfvr.org/nutrition.

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