Frequent family meals help children establish developmental and social skills. While parents have busy schedules that can make dinnertime stressful, it is crucial for families to frequently gather for a shared meal. Mealtime looks different for everyone, and a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrist explains how to get the most out of the bonding experience.
“Spending time with your child at the dinner table can help facilitate the child trying new things, being exposed to different tastes and textures and potentially help them learn motor skills, like how to be together, how to sit, how to be engaged,” said Dr. Laurel Williams, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and BehavioralSciences at Baylor.
Children might be picky eaters, and it can take them up to five times of trying a new food before determining if they like it or not. Families should spend less time making mealtime a battle and focus on making it a fun, engaging game. Encourage your children by saying “Mom and dad are eating the same thing,” which allows them to participate with the family and start to develop social skills and healthy eating habits. A meal feeds the child and meets a need they have, allowing them to refuel, while bringing in socialization and talking to each other. Solving hunger and having good conversation models how to be socially together with people.
“Sharing a meal and breaking bread is such a time-honored tradition for people as a way to be together. You don’t need to cook the meal or make it fancy, just don’t go off to your respective corners,” she said.
Parents who want to help kids try more foods can encourage them to help in the kitchen without making it a chore. You can safely, appropriately and developmentally allow them to be part of the process, explaining your respective roles in the kitchen. Sharing this process helps build developmental skills and your child might be more invested about what is going on the table, which means they might be more willing to try foods they might have not tried before helping prepare the meal.
Williams recommends keeping mealtime conversations enjoyable. Avoid getting into negative conversations surrounding food, such as battles about size, health or anything that sets a negative tone toward the body or food. Family meals are not the time to mention low grades or difficult topics. She also suggests keeping smartphones separate from mealtime because it can lead to mindless overeating.
“If you have things in front of you that are distracting you from the task at hand, which is eating and socially connecting, you may end up eating more because you’re not paying attention to the fact that you’re full,” she said. “If everyone, including parents, is busy looking at their phones, then you’re not interacting and you might as well be in your separate corners because you’re already in your separate corners of the internet.”
If a child is looking at their device, instead of demanding they put it away, ask them to show you the article or funny video online. Williams does not recommend taking it away and making the child miserable right away, but parents should ask what they are looking at and make it more engaging with the family while creating boundaries around screen time. Parents set the tone, so if you enter a space while staring at your phone, you let the child know the phone needs to be present. If you let children have a screen in front of them at all times, it will be harder to gradually revoke those privileges. If you set boundaries, children will be less fussy when you ask them to put away the phone or tablet.
“One thing parents can do is consider how to incorporate the phone so it doesn’t feel like you’re taking something away,” Williams said.
Have a family pizza night and make the pizza at home, giving every child a task in the kitchen. You can play a YouTube tutorial or read instructions on the device, which allows them to use the electronics while also being involved with the family. If everyone has tasks to accomplish, they might even realize they do not need or want to have the distraction, removing the screen from meal preparation altogether.
“Parents are extremely busy and stressed. Even if you’re not someone who has the opportunity to cook or you’re not good at it, you can still have family mealtimes where you’re bonding and having good conversation without devices for 30 minutes. Make it doable – if all you can get out of them is 30 minutes with no one on their phones, it’s still a success,” Williams said.