The great benefits of shared family meals

By Donna McIntyre

Family meals lead to better relationships and better eating habits. Photo / Thinkstock
Family meals lead to better relationships and better eating habits. Photo / Thinkstock

Increased self-respect, less chance of depression, obesity, experimenting with drugs and alcohol...

When you first hear the results of national and international surveys on the benefits of shared family meals, it seems incredible that so many positive spinoffs come about from something as simple as taking the time to eat together as a family.

But think about it from the children's points of view, and it makes sense. By parents making the effort to share a meal with their children, the kids feel valued.

Carl Davidson, chief commissioner with the Families Commission, says his organisation was surprised by the publicity the Youth 07 report received last year. The study found that for New Zealand secondary school students, frequent family meals were also associated with better family relationships, better dietary behaviours and fewer depressive symptoms and substance misuse.

"The nutrition one is obvious," says Davidson. "And the communication and verbal skills make sense, too. But it is interesting that shared family meals have an effect on addictive behaviours and social behaviour.

"We have woken up in a world where eating family meals together is exceptional," he adds.

"You don't have to go back too far back in time to when family meals were an important part of family life. And it wasn't just that families came together for meals, they often prepared them together which taught the children about problem solving, negotiating and communication.

"But now families often have parents working full time to bring in two incomes, and we have technology available that allows families to eat at different times.

"So many of us are so busy doing so much for our families and in the end we lose the point of why we are doing it."

Auckland City Missioner Diane Robertson's children have left home now, but during their formative years, every night they had the ritual of sitting down to a family meal.

"It showed our children the family unit was important. It was something we did as a family with rules that there were no phone calls, no visitors and no interruptions.

"We have had lots of conversations over the years. Sometimes they were about nothing much and other times they were deep discussions."

It takes organisation and commitment to regularly have shared meals together, she says. "Often people don't have the energy and it's so much easier to say we'll eat while we watch TV, they're texting or they're on the phone. There's very little sitting together as a family without distractions. But you have to work at making it happen.

"In my work we see that for a majority of our families that is what is missing. A lot of families don't even have a dining room table. It's a fundamental issue of not having a place to do this; they are so busy surviving day to day."

Davidson agrees. "That is a criticism of family meals, that it works only for some sectors of the population. There might be only one parent at home and they might be holding down two or three part-time jobs just to pay the rent and buy food. What chance do they have to sit down regularly for family meals?"

But it doesn't have to be every meal. "Three times a week is great if families can achieve that and it doesn't have to be an evening meal. The ritual in our family is we always go out for Sunday brunch."

Breakfast is the family meal Greer Robson-Kirk, Scott Kirk and their children Sienna, 6, Indigo, 5, and 19-month-old Hudson share the most.

"Shared dinners tend to only happen in the weekends as Scott often doesn't get home from work until just before the children's bedtimes," says Robson-Kirk. "So instead we sit down to breakfast together most mornings." The couple believe this meal time together gives them a good chance to catch up. "It gives our children that sense of belonging and being part of our family team. We hope that these times shared while the children are younger will set the foundations for making our family ties strong enough to help navigate those intrepid teen years when the communication may be less forthcoming."

Further information

* Food Week starts tomorrow based around the Just Cook Food List, a list of basic pantry and fridge/freezer essentials New Zealand households should always have on hand, compiled by the NZ Nutrition Foundation.

* The Interactive Kitchen, a Facebook app, is available to help Kiwis find recipes to match ingredients they have on hand.

* The Just Cook Create a Family Meal Challenge is a competition aimed at school-aged children to help build their confidence in the kitchen. By creating an original recipe for a family of five, based on ingredients in the Just Cook Food List, they can win prizes.
www.justcook.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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