The Malta Independent 16 November 2018, Friday

The family that eats together…

Wednesday, 21 March 2018, 12:15 Last update: about 9 months ago

It is an idyllic image, all the family together round the table for a meal. But many children miss out on this important social gathering.

 

Which is a great shame, because the advantages of such get-togethers, which once upon a time were so normal that no one even gave them a second thought, have actually been authentically researched and the results show that the sooner we reintroduce family meals on a regular basis the better.

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Anything from trying to fit in with work and study hours, to leisure time, travel arrangements and even food likes and dislikes, can easily put whoever does most of the cooking off trying to co-ordinate even one meal a week that the whole family can attend.

But it's worth it because there is documented evidence that children who regularly eat a proper meal, as a family, consume more healthy foods containing fruits, vegetables, vitamins and other nutrients. They are less inclined to eat and drink junk food and over-sugared drinks, which obviously helps in preventing obesity. They are also mentally fitter, since verbal and social skills are developed and enhanced through conversations between one or two generations. They benefit from the opportunity to 'bring something to the table' and share their news, experiences and concerns with others over what is mostly seen as an enjoyable time. They learn to relate to each other and value the closeness and security family provides.

Yes. And it's about now that a host of harassed parents can be heard yelling: 'Not in our house!' For many this perfect picture is simply the stuff of pasta adverts.

Dinner time with children, of any age, can vary from tense to hostile. Toddlers whose aim with a spoon is at best erratic, fidgeting little ones who just want to be somewhere else, monosyllabic adolescents taking no part in the event at all and worried mothers fearing their children's refusal to eat anything but cereal or chicken nuggets will leave them malnourished for life.

But it can work, and not just in those nauseating 'Hollywood' movies that give us all such ridiculous expectations of family life. Make a point, from now on, to have at least two or three family meals a week. They don't all have to be home-cooked but the majority should be. Issue special invitations and offer no alternatives to anyone who tries to opt out. Set a cheerful scene and make it special and that is exactly how it will turn out.

Build up the hype before each meal by letting people take it in turns to choose certain dishes, and even cook them if that will work. Just don't make anyone eat something they genuinely hate; that will completely defeat the object. Have some good news or a funny story ready, to kick start a conversation. And never, ever bring up such indigestible subjects as homework, can we get a dog, illness, bad behaviour, past arguments and grievances.

It's hardly surprising that many family members either dread or avoid meals together if the atmosphere is steeped in negativity. These occasions should be something to look forward to, for all the benefits they can and will have on everyone.

Apart from expecting children to show basic table manners, and not eat as if they are either dissecting a specimen or filling a cement mixer, make all associations with sitting at a table as pleasant as possible. Children can grasp a situation, and play along quite happily with what is expected of them when it is to their advantage. And give them time to enjoy their meal at their own pace, without being told to eat faster or slow down all the time. They will soon learn how to keep up if dawdling means they miss out on a second helping or a favourite course.

There may be howls of protest at first, but ban all artificial forms of communication, phones, tablets, books and toys, especially electronic ones. Music could just be acceptable for anyone who simply cannot function without background noise. The idea is to communicate directly with each other, and let's be honest plenty of us could gain a lot from doing a bit more of that too.

These meals can be an interesting time for children. They have a chance to speak and be listened to, a break from the stresses of the day or a time to share something exciting. But they can also quickly tire of adults' conversations so either seat them all together, so they can chatter to each other, or include them in general discussions. This will give them excellent experience in listening and giving their contributions on different subjects.

The experience of sharing a satisfying, comforting good meal as a family is a special way of giving children a sense of self confidence and security. It sets an example of family unity and sows the seeds of good communication that will grow for generations. 


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