We wanted to know why so many families find dinner time stressful. So we asked western Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian Charity Spalding:
Almost everyone enjoys going out for a meal. Socialising while eating in a stress-free way is fun. While you’re out you’re probably not worrying about what you or your children are eating. If your family meals at home are just as pleasurable and stress-free as when eating out, then well done! Lots of people find family meals stressful, disheartening and not particularly enjoyable. But mealtimes are so, so important and I’ve got a big tip to bring the joy back to family meals.
Why are they so important?
Eating isn’t just about nutrition. There is a HUGE social side to meals and eating. Family mealtimes provide opportunities for connection and learning. They’re a great way to reconnect. We’re often separated from our family members for a long time each day because of work, school, day-care etc. Eating together is a great way to talk and find out how (& what) everyone is doing.
Most people don’t like to eat alone, so we shouldn’t expect our children to enjoy eating along either. Family meals are an important part of parenting. Children learn so much from eating with us. They learn about their food, how their culture impacts their food, how to interact with food, how and what to eat, how to behave at meal times and how to respect themselves and their appetite. They learn this by watching us, the way we do these things and the way we speak to and treat them during our meals. They learn what they see, hear and experience. This opportunity for connection and learning is so important that family mealtimes need to happen every day.
That’s hard sometimes. Does it have to be dinner time?
It doesn’t have to be at dinner. It can be at breakfast or lunch if that works better for your family. However, the benefit of dinner is that it’s at the end of the day and you can spend quality time talking about your day together, connecting after pre-school/school/work or discussing what you’ve done together that day while it is still fresh in your mind.
So you promised a big tip about how to make this a little less stressful? I think we need to hear it.
Even though they’re so important, family mealtimes can be stressful for parents and children alike. Often that stress stems from one or both sides not respecting the other’s mealtime role. Ellyn Satter writes about what she calls ‘The Division of Responsibility’ at mealtimes. It basically boils down to this: parent provides, child decides.
So what does that mean?
This means is that it is the parent’s job to decide what food to provide at meals and snacks, where it will be provided (eg. at the table, on a picnic rug in the backyard/on the balcony etc) and when (at meal and snack times). It is up to your child to listen to their body and decide how much (if any) of that food to eat.
I get how that works for younger kids, but what does it look like as your child grows?
When they’re a toddler it might mean doing your best not to worry when your child chooses that today they’re only eating the pasta on their plate. You provide, they decide. When they’re school aged it might mean letting your child serve food to themselves. You provide, they decide. When they’re a young teenager it might mean encouraging them to cook dinner once a week. You give them a choice of meals with recipes (all ones you’d be happy with) and they make the final decision. You provide, they decide.
Ok, got it. You provide, they decide!
Once you start respecting each other’s roles at meal times a lot of the stress around eating disappears. It becomes easier to connect with each other and provide those learning opportunities that are so important to enjoying eating together.
Charity Spalding is wife and mother of 2 young children who happens to be an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Nutritionist. Charity runs Accessible Nutrition where she focuses on helping children and people with disability reach their nutrition potential. You can follow her on Facebook or contact her for individualised nutrition advice.
If you want to sit down with your family each night for dinner but don’t have the time, sign up to our Find Time to Cook Dinner email course.