Table Talk

Eating and sharing together around the dinner table helps children develop vital life skills.
By NICOLE LEVIN

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My friend announced: “Everything I know about business, I learnt at the family dinner table.” I was impressed since she hasn’t any formal education in this area. Her answer made me think that perhaps as parents we may focus too much on what is learnt in formal education and overlook just how much is actually learnt through the simple tradition of eating together as a family. Eating regular family meals together is where so much learning and family relationship building happens. However, in many households, this seemingly simple family ritual is forsaken due to busy schedules and electronic distractions: Cellphones, iPads and TV. Sitting together while everyone is engaging with devices does not constitute a shared family meal! Dr Anne Fishel, a professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, writes: “As a family therapist, I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and eat dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. And 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia backs up my enthusiasm for family dinners.”

developing young minds

Harvard University research shows that preschool, primary and high school children from families who eat meals together do better intellectually, regardless of social economic class or family structure. The research also showed that for school-age children, regular family meals are an even more consistent predictor of high academic achievement than hours spent at school, doing homework, playing sports, or doing art. Through conversation around the dinner table, children develop their intellectual skills. They are exposed to more vocabulary, storytelling and complex language through listening and speaking with their parents. They can also be exposed to a range of topics that develop their minds such as current affairs, ethics and subjects that may be of interest to them or other family members.

acquiring social graces

The family dinner table is where children learn family and cultural values. It’s also an important place to learn vital social skills such as the correct way to sit and behave at a table, appropriate body language, the art of conversation, taking turns, making eye contact, polite manners and how to interact appropriately in a social setting. When eating outside the family home, or in any other social situation, children then know how to conduct themselves properly. All these social skills aren’t innate; they require practise. The family meal is the perfect place to practise and hone the art of conversation and social graces.

creating emotional wellbeing

Family members who eat meals together feel emotionally more connected to one another. These children have a stronger sense of identity, greater stability, a sense of belonging to the family, higher self-esteem, better emotional resilience, experience less stress and are less likely to get depressed or have behavioural problems. Children who eat dinner with their families, and can be encouraged to talk about their day with their parents, will benefit from emotional support from their parents, gain input on problem-solving, and experience improved and stronger parent-child relationships. Teenagers who eat regular family meals together are less likely to drink, take drugs or engage in early sex. They are more likely to be emotionally content and stable, work hard and have positive interpersonal relationships. Studies undertaken in New Zealand show that teenagers who enjoyed regular family meals exhibited more positive moods and had a greater positive view of the future than those who didn’t. “And so, this regular mealtime connection is a life jacket for sailing the rough and rocky seas of childhood and adolescence.”

laying the foundation for healthy eating habits

Families who eat together develop better eating habits. Instead of each family member snacking as and when they please, the family sits down to eat a wholesome meal. Children are exposed to a wider range of foods and a more varied diet. Parents have the opportunity to be good role models for healthy eating through the meal choices, this can positively influence children’s own eating behaviours and food choices. Children who eat regular family meals have less chance of developing obesity or eating disorders.

happy atmosphere

None of the above benefits can occur if there is a cold stony atmosphere at the table, if parents shout at each other or the children, and if family members fight with one another. The real magic of beneficial family dinners lies in the interpersonal relationships and the atmosphere created at the table: A positive experience gained through a home-cooked meal and a warm atmosphere conducive to sharing stories, chatting and laughing together. These are the daily experiences that build lasting connections.

make family meals a priority

Making family meals happen is not so easy when people’s lives are busy and their priorities differ, so it is important that the family meal becomes something to look forward to, something that will enhance the day and not add more stress. Tips to make family mealtimes, bonding time:

  • plan: Schedule family meals as you would other appointments in your week. Family meals don’t have to happen every day, but include them in your family’s schedule whenever you can. Add them to everyone’s calendar in advance.
  • be flexible: If both parents can’t be there for the whole meal due to work schedules, then organise it so the main course can be eaten with the one parent and dessert with the other. If dinner isn’t possible, try having another meal, like breakfast, together.
  • turn off all technology: No cellphones, iPads, iPods, TV while eating, this must become a family rule that applies to everyone!
  • shop in advance: Plan your family meals and shop in advance, so you have all the ingredients you need for your daily meals.
  • prepare readymade meals: Take the stress out of weekday cooking, make casseroles, soups or sauces over the weekend and freeze. This way no one will become stressed and rushed trying to cook a meal at the end of a busy, tiring day.
  • choose quick simple meals: Cook meals that are healthy, quick and easy. The family meal does not have to be a fancy affair!
  • get the children involved: Let everyone help, whether its chopping or stirring or laying the table and clearing up. Delegate age-appropriate tasks to everyone in the family. Getting everyone involved makes the meal preparation fun and faster and also provides valuable life skill lessons.
  • have fun: Make the meal fun by playing table games, telling stories, or having an indoor picnic. For ideas for conversation games see The Family Dinner Project: pz.harvard.edu/projects/the-family-dinner-project or get yourself a pack of Table Talk Conversation Cards from Exclusive Books or Takelot.

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