Think of comfort food – anything that you like. Does it take it back to your childhood and a family meal? Maybe with you fighting with your sibling over who gets a bigger share of a favorite item, or trying to offload an unpopular one to another plate. Some of you might have fed scraps to a pet at the table, maybe helped set the table, or complained about the ‘boring food.’ It was fun, wasn't it? Well, family meals are an essential part of our childhood routines, and now there is research to support why they are important.
What is a family meal?
Any meal that the members of a family eat together is a family meal. There are no rules as such, and just like every family is unique, their family meal rituals will also differ widely. Moreover, these meals will evolve as kids grow, and the family size and style changes. With toddlers, the meal might be just representational as toddlers eat more meals than grown-ups. Yet the toddler must be at the table, watching older kids, parents, and whoever is at home eat together.
What are the rules of a family meal?
There are no rules to a family meal; however, most family meals will:
Include all residents of the home, if possible. Maybe babies eat first, and perhaps older people have special needs, but assembling at the table together, around food and sustenance is essential. Yes, adults do travel on business and may not make it to every meal, but everyone tries and makes it.
Be nutritious. A meal on the run can be anything that comes to hand. While in a crunch, an energy bar might serve the purpose before a business meeting, it is hardly what we want our kids to eat. Their growing needs compel us to make balanced meals.
Are a part of the family ritual. When you start eating together, you do not need to say that every day. It becomes a habit and part of the family rituals and traditions that are carried on and make for a strong stable bond.
What do family meals mean to the family?
They help build relationships. When you eat together, you see one another over a comforting plate of food and bond with one another day after day. You talk, laugh or even argue, get to know one another, and observe how the other behaves, building a relationship as you go.
Inculcate better manners and politeness. When you eat together, you learn how to behave at the table. You listen politely, eat properly, answer questions, and learn by observation.
Learn to work as a team. Someone sets the table, while another may clear up at the end of the table, you fill water in the glass or serve someone else. There are harmony and teamwork in family meals.
Builds a sense of security. There is security in the familiar and routine of the day. For young children, especially when they see and hear their parents talk, discuss, ask about one another’s day, it makes for great security. They feel a part of a unit.
Healthier choices. The food choices you make at meals set the tone for a child for the rest of his life. If you have heard it once, you have heard it a million times “like mother made.” No one talks about chips and fast food in the same way.
Helps introduce all types of food. When you eat together, you have to keep in mind the choices and preferences of everyone. It means that everyone has to eat whatever is served at that meal. It is a great way to introduce all the food to kids.
Helps discipline. Eat at a certain time, sit with everyone, eat what everyone is eating. This might not seem like much, but it is how we learn to adjust not just to eat whatever is there, but also adjust to the world and be disciplined.
Reduce stress. The time to talk, eat together, argue, fight, etc. takes your mind off the daily grind and reduces the stress of life.
Share time. Mealtime is the best time to talk about the day and generally track what is happening in the lives of those you love. Encourage kids to tell you about their school, friends, play, etc. It is also a good time to tell the kids about your day. Are you planning to travel for work? Will you be later than usual at work tomorrow, can we all visit the park next weekend? These are all things that will find their way into the conversation at mealtime.
Improve communication. The more you talk to one another, the more you can talk. There may be different generations at the table, which also encourage proper communication amongst all.
These and many other benefits fall from eating together. There is even research to prove that family meals mean less waste and more savings. Anjali Shenoi, the mother of four-year-old Ananya, has made it a practice from when Ananya was very young to eat dinner together. “Dinner is our favorite time of the day that we spend together as a family. Every evening, we make it a point to eat together and to keep the meal gadget-free! It's important quality time with our four-year-old, where we discuss each other's day and plan for the next. It's usually wholesome, home-cooked food and time we use to encourage a healthy with food for all of us, particularly my daughter, with no talk of diets/ weight loss/ dress sizes!!” she sums up.