As a Paediatric Nutritionist, I am a strong advocate of eating together as a family whenever possible for a number of reasons. As well as being the perfect opportunity to spend quality time together, I firmly believe it is the cornerstone of healthy eating and a chance for positive role modelling.
Studies show that regular family meals provide numerous benefits that go far beyond simple nutrition and can improve a child’s vocabulary, mood, academic success and outlook on the future. A report by Columbia University even concluded that adolescents who eat with their family four or more times a week do better at school, are less likely to engage in underage drinking and have less social and emotional problems.
However, busy schedules mean it’s not always easy to get everyone together on a regular basis and if you have a fussy or picky eater in the house or differing demands it can easily turn into a stressful rather than bonding experience!
Below are my tips for getting the whole clan together for harmonious family meals without the headache.
Dinner can sometimes be the most difficult meal of the day as everyone is tired but do your best to make meals as stress-free and positive as possible. The focus should be on getting everyone to sit down together and enjoy time as a family. If you find yourself getting anxious or worked up as dinner approaches then your child will feed off this energy. Instead shift your focus away from the fact that your meatloaf may end up in the bin again and try to offer meals that work within your child’s framework of food preferences. By the same token, if children see their parents arguing at the table they are likely to become distressed and it could set up negative associations with family mealtimes. The real value of a family meal is its ability to develop strong bonds and positive associations.
Schedule what works for you
Don’t feel guilty about being unable to find the time for regular family meals if your family is able to relate well through other activities. Start by having family meals on the weekend when it is more manageable. I sit down to eat with my children every night but it’s too early for my husband, plus I’m not ready to eat a full dinner so I tend to eat a fresh salad and part of what they are eating. Sometimes it’s one meatball, a piece of fish, a small portion of pasta or an egg. Scheduling mealtimes so your child learns structure is great, but it’s also OK to bring dinner forward if you can see they are really hungry or give them part of their meal before the rest of the family sits down to eat.
The family that cooks together…
…eats together! So get everyone involved not only in the cooking but also shopping and even growing the ingredients if you can. Children love to eat what they have helped prepare and it is important for them to be exposed to food in its raw state and to understand how textures change when cooked. Let them help by peeling carrots and potatoes, cutting lettuce, pouring beans into soups and adding grated carrot to bliss balls or garlic into bolognaise. Also encourage your child to set the table, choose their plate and decide where they would like to sit as this helps them feel empowered.
Be sensitive to preferences
The aim is to only cook one meal for a family dinner, but if you have a fussy eater who does not want any of their food to touch or prefers sauces to be put on the side then it makes sense to plan the meal around his preferences. For example, if you are making hamburgers, before you add all the ingredients together, separate the patty, lettuce, cucumber, tomato and the bread roll for your fussy eater. The same can easily be done with shepherd’s pie or fried rice. Being sensitive to each family member’s food preferences and making sure there’s at least one component everyone can eat will help make mealtimes more enjoyable and successful for everyone.
Be a role model
Sitting down to meals as a family is the ideal opportunity for children to benefit from positive role modelling. But in order for it to be truly beneficial, the main focus of the experience must be pleasant and engaging. I have always put a large salad bowl in the middle of the table with child-sized tongs and side plates for my children to explore and pick out what they want. They now each fill their bowls with salad and their favourite dressing – extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
I’ve come across may parents who find that the best way to get their kids to eat is by sitting them in front of the TV at dinnertime. This makes me sad for a number of reasons! Firstly, how can we expect children to nurture a love of food if they aren’t even seeing or really tasting what’s going into their mouths? And also, what a missed opportunity to bond with your child! I find meals the best time for family games and conversations – it’s when we have fun and giggle. I do understand that for some parents, distraction is the only way to get their kids to eat. If this is the case, instead of relying on technology, try and become their distraction and their security. In my home, we often play “I Spy” or “ Simon Says” or we name countries or animals and go through the alphabet. It’s during mealtimes that my kids often open up to me about what’s happening at school and tell me how their day went. I always encourage parents to turn off the TV and put the iPads away – and obviously the same goes for adults’ phones too!
Try breakfast instead
Eating a healthy breakfast leads to improved cognition and memory, helps reduce sick days off school and generally improves mood. A 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that teenagers who ate breakfast regularly had a lower body-mass index than those who did not. If you can’t make regular family dinners, try instead to eat breakfast together as often as possible
Sharing is caring – and getting everyone to fill and roll their own crunchy lettuce cups in this hands-on nutritious family meal can’t help but bring everyone together!
Serves: 3-4 Prep: 10 min Cook: 10-15 min
|400g skinless and boneless salmon fillets|
|2 tbs arrowroot or tapioca flour|
|2 tbs coconut oil|
|2 cloves garlic, finely diced|
|1 tbs ginger, finely diced|
|3 spring onions, finely sliced|
|½ red capsicum, finely diced|
|1 medium-sized carrot, finely cubed|
|1 cup green beans, cut into 1cm pieces|
|3 tbs tamari or low-sodium soy sauce|
|1 tsp sesame oil|
|1/2 head iceberg lettuce, separated into cups|
|Toasted sesame seeds and lemon wedges, to serve|
|Cut the salmon into 2cm cubes, toss with the arrowroot flour and set aside.|
|Heat a wok or frying pan over high heat and add 1 tbs of the coconut oil. Add the garlic, ginger, spring onions and capsicum and fry for about one minute.|
|Add the carrots and beans and stir fry for about 3 minutes until the carrots and beans are softened.|
|Remove the vegetables from the wok and return the wok to the heat.|
|Heat the remaining oil in the wok and fry the salmon pieces for about 3 minutes until browned on all sides.|
|Add the tamari and the sesame oil and toss to coat the salmon. Return the vegetables to the wok and toss through.|
|To serve, fill the lettuce cups with the salmon mixture, scatter with sesame seeds and squeeze over a little lemon.|
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.