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Here’s how you can get the family round the table (and why it’s important that you do)

Clinical psychologist David Coleman is here to give advice.

EATING TOGETHER IS a great way to catch up with the whole family in one go.

It’s been proven to help children develop language skills, and help families bond.

According to SuperValu’s Home Truth report, six out of 10 people “believe that eating a meal together regularly is the ‘number one thing’ that keeps families together.”

So, what’s the problem?

Eating together as a family can be hard to achieve for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s because one or both parents are working prevents the whole family sitting down together at the same time, or the age of the children (toddlers eating earlier and teens either busy with extra-curricular activities or just wanting to assert their independence), nailing a regular time and place for eating together can be quite the ordeal.

We got to speak to clinical psychologist David Coleman about the psychology of eating together – when the best time is to do it, common reasons why it doesn’t all come together, and tips on how to maximise your time as a family around the dinner (or breakfast or lunch) table.

david coleman Clinical psychologist David Coleman Source: RTÉ

To start us off, we asked David about the psychology of eating together, and he had this to say:

Family connection

There’s a lot of research that has supported the idea that when we spend time together as a family it cements family connection and David tells us, “eating together is one of the most natural opportunities to (do that) and it is part of our social nature, as human beings, to want to spend time together”.

For families, it just makes sense to eat the main meal at a set time, both from a practical sense of someone not feeling like a short-order cook – cooking meals whenever people deign to have them, and also as a means of connection and relaxation.

However, it’s not always possible for a number of reasons.

Hectic hectic lives

Source: Shutterstock/Ollyy

One of the main concerns for families – and one of the main obstacles to eating together – is the fact that we’re all so very, very busy. Whether one or both parents are working and the age of the child and where they are in school can all affect the time that meals get on to the table.

Technology

A point that David emphasised was it’s “quality not quantity when it comes to meal times”. Common areas of concern are the distractions caused by technology and TV and how they impact the quality of the meal.

David has a quick solution – turn them off.  Easy. If you really struggle with separating yourself from your phone, remember that at most you’re probably only putting it down for 30 or so minutes. You can do it, we believe in you.

Source: Shutterstock/andras_csontos

Minimum requirements

Interestingly, David doesn’t have a minimum requirement for how many meals should be eaten together as a family. He’s more than aware that people’s lives are hectic and finding time to eat at all can be a problem, let alone corralling a number of people together on a regular basis.

What he does recommend is making sure then that another time is utilised for a family meal time. Make a special effort at the weekend, for instance, if it’s truly impossible during the week. It’s been shown in the Home Truths report that Sunday brunch is the second most popular way for families to eat together – after the all-important Sunday dinner.

Source: SuperValu

While there’s no real set amount of times to engage in a meal together, the more you do it the better it is for the health of the whole family. David says to “start as you mean to go on” in terms of setting good habits for children.

So, this means children eating at the same time as their parents, eating the same food as them and being encouraged to taste and explore different foods, all set up good habits and lead to happier mealtimes.

 Teens

Source: Ursula Le Guin Photography

Teens might be driving you up the wall right now as they assert their independence, and want to spend time with their friends – which means family dinners can be the last thing they want to do.

However, David says that having a routine for children and teens – for instance, Friday night always being home-made pizza night – is a great way for the teens to have an ‘excuse’ to have to stay in and eat with the family tonight. Plus, they’ll never tell you, but they love it and they’re not happy when it’s not happening.

David also mentions a report that says that teens who spend six hours a week with their family – in any capacity, it doesn’t have to be at meals, have a much lower tendency to get involved with drugs and alcohol.

What’s interesting is that the report doesn’t speak about the quality of the time, it’s simply the quantity of the time, is associated more with teens staying on the straight and narrow.

And here’s an easy to make ‘pizza’ recipe that’s a tasty treat for the kids (and grown-ups…)

Source: SuperValuIreland/YouTube

Toddlers

Toddlers can cause problems of their own for a number of reasons. Either they’re picky eaters or they have to eat earlier in the day and can’t wait until one or both parents come home, cook dinner and then sit down to eat.

David has some great tips for all of these issues. The very first being “don’t make meal times a battleground”. This means that mealtimes should be much more about the social engagement and less about what is eaten.

It might sound a little counter-intuitive, but children will eat as much as they  need and are often ‘grazers’ when they’re younger, preferring smaller meals more often.  As a result of relaxed mealtimes,  your toddlers are less likely to become picky eaters as they learn good habits around eating from you, from the beginning.

Source: Shutterstock/Westend61 Premium

Time, gentlemen please…

Next problem is the time that toddlers eat and how their parents can facilitate that around coming home from work and the much-needed earlier bedtimes.

David says that even if the parent can sit down and have a snack or a small portion with the child at the child’s dinnertime and have their proper meal later, this helps to develop good eating habits from an early age, as the child learns manners, how to sit at a table, how to use cutlery and how to try foods from observing their parents do all of these.

Children are more likely to be adventurous to try different foods. If they see their parents trying different foods, they’ll try too.

Ultimately, aiming to have dinner as a social endeavour, and seeing it as a time to relax, rather than viewing it as something else that needs to be got out of the way (along with bath and bedtime) before the grownups can sit down, is a great way to start enjoying mealtimes together as a family and reaping all those lovely  benefits.

Over to you: what are your best tips for eating together as a family?

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About the author:

Edel Corrigan

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