Family life is so busy – work, child care, pre-school and school, after-school activities, homework and more. Regular family meals give everybody a chance to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Here’s how to get the most out of your family meals.

Benefits of family meals

Family life often comes with a busy schedule. It isn’t always easy to put a meal on the table, let alone get the whole family to sit down together to enjoy it. However, having a regular family mealtime is worth the effort.

Whether it’s nightly dinners or a special Sunday lunch, family meals are perfect times to catch up, connect and communicate with each other. This can be especially important for busy older children and teenagers.

Your child can also learn a lot about food and eating by watching what you do at mealtimes. For example, eating with the rest of the family helps younger children learn to eat the same healthy food as everyone else. It can encourage picky eaters to try new foods.

You can also use family meals to model good eating habits, as well as the behaviour you want to see when your family comes together. This is about learning to use spoons, forks and chopsticks for younger children. It’s also about things like taking turns to talk and listening while others share their news.

Six ways to make family meals enjoyable

1. Set aside regular times to eat together

When you put these times in your weekly schedule, you’re all more likely to be there. Having your meal at a table, with the television and phones turned off, can make this time even more special.

2. Reduce the rush

If you allow around half an hour for family meals, it gives your children plenty of time to eat. They’ll have the chance to try new foods and develop good eating habits. This also gives you time to relax, chat and enjoy your family.

If your toddler finds it hard to sit still for half an hour, you could let him move around a bit. However, it’s best to let him eat only when he’s sitting at the table.

3. Get everyone involved

Involving your family in choosing and preparing the meal increases the chance that they’ll eat it. It can also help fussy eaters to try new food.

Even young children can help with preparing family meals. For example, they can choose recipes, wash fruit and veggies, or toss salads. They can also help by setting the table and choosing beverages or dessert.

Older children and teenagers might enjoy cooking a meal for the family – for example, once a week or fortnight. This helps share the responsibility for preparing a meal and gives your child the chance to learn to cook.

4. Use family meals as a chance to talk

Family meals can be a great way to keep up with what everyone is doing. However, sometimes children can find it hard to put their days into words. If this sounds like your child, it can help to ask your child questions that need more than a yes-or-no answer. For example, ‘Tell me one great thing that happened at school today’.

Another idea might be for everyone to take turns sharing something good and bad about their day. This way your child won’t feel like he’s being put on the spot.

However, if your child really doesn’t want to talk, it’s best not to push too hard or bring up touchy subjects. It’s good for your child just to be with your family and listen to other people talking. The idea is to make mealtimes enjoyable and social.

5. Reward good behaviour

When your younger children are eating nicely, using good manners and trying different foods, try to reward them with some descriptive praise. Tell them what they’re doing well. You might even want to use a reward chart to reward behaviour like trying every food on the plate or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

Avoid using food as punishment or bribes. For example, it isn’t a good idea to say, ‘If you eat your broccoli, you can have some ice-cream for dessert’. This can make your child more interested in treats than healthy foods.

6. Be creative with mealtimes

When you have the time and opportunity, having some fun with mealtimes can give the whole family something to look forward to. For example, on a weekend you might:

  • make healthy pancakes for breakfast

  • have a picnic at the park

  • invite a special guest over for dinner, like a friend, grandparent or neighbour. This can also be a great way of getting to know your older or teenage child’s friends

  • create a meal with a theme – for example, food from a country with a language your child is learning at school.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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