This week’s question is from Andrea,
“I grew up in a home where we had meals together most nights, and I want to do the same thing for my family, but I’m struggling because my kids who are 3, 7, and 13 don’t want to sit at the table and participate in a family meal. They want their devices, they want to eat in the other room, or they just want to grab something and eat whenever they want. My partner doesn’t think it’s a big deal and tells me to stop trying to make family meals happen, but I don’t think the way we’re doing things is good for any of us. Do you have ideas for making family meals more manageable?”
In this episode, I will address why it is so important to have family mealtime for both children and adults. I will share how to implement successful, supportive healthy mealtime routines, even for families with resistive behaviors or who need accommodations for children with developmental challenges.
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Family Mealtime is beneficial for the entire family
- Research shows family meals provide protective factors for our kids against some of the dangerous or problematic things that they can get into as they get older
- It also provides protective effects against worsening mental health issues
- Kids, at least some of the time, are less likely to be anxious, depressed, act out, use substances, or get into other dangerous behaviors as they get older
Family mealtime can mean many things
- If not possible with schedules, mealtime does not need to be the entire family and/or every night
- Research shows benefits even if family meals only consist of 1 parent and however many nights are workable in the schedule
- It’s about having a consistent routine, the presence of an adult and/or other family members, and building relationships
- This can be any meal of the day or even snacks
- The idea here is to prioritize, as often as possible, sitting down together, having some kind of routine around eating together
Families that prioritize mealtimes together tend to be healthier
- Typically healthier in terms of the foods eaten and physical health
- Don’t need to be fancy or all homemade, it is the act of preparing something at home and/or sitting down together consistently
- The research shows family mealtime helps adults as well to be more mindful, helps reduce stress levels, and supports mental health and our relationship with our kids
Family dynamics affect what mealtime looks like
- Consider ages and developmental levels
- Set reasonable and consistent expectations for mealtime based on who is participating (their needs, age etc.)
- As a parent must model the expectations consistently even if kids are resistance
- The majority of kids learn to follow expectations and adjust to the routine if you are consistent.
- Exceptions include kids with more significant neurodevelopmental issues, trauma history, challenging behaviors, etc.
- May need additional strategies, accommodations, and support for kids who have severe picky eating feeding disorders, or neurodevelopmental, behavioral, or emotional challenges
Basic components of a family mealtime
- Everyone together at the “table” /in the same place
- Everyone helps with something; whether that is filling the glasses, getting napkins, prepping, serving, cleaning, etc.
- No devices or other distractions, including TV in the background
- Music is fine
- Length of mealtime varies by family and schedule
- Younger kids may only have the expectation to stay at the table until they are finished eating
- If family mealtime is a new routine, you may want to have basket so everybody can deposit their device in on the way to the table
Managing mealtime complaints & resistance
- First acknowledge how they are feeling
- They are allowed to have their feelings of annoyance, frustration, etc.
- Empathize with them while still maintaining clear boundaries and expectations
- If there is complaining at the dinner table, here are 2 suggestions:
- Acknowledge that you understand their discontent, but let them know you are not going to respond to their complaining if they continue
- Make a factual statement like, “I really enjoy mealtime more when people are talking instead of yelling or crying.” Then move on.
- Keep mealtime short initially if you have a child who has very explosive behaviors or takes time to ease into new routines
- Give a child some elements of control; what seat, glass or napkins they would like to use, etc. “You get to decide ….”
- Promoting short-order cooking is not recommended, but it is very appropriate to have some component being served that is a preferred comfortable food that the child will eat
- For some kids who have more severe feeding disorders may not eat with the family or do require completely different food, but they should still be expected to be part of family mealtime because that exposure and routine is really important for their development
- Use timers if needed to get kids comfortable and extend over time
- Remember modeling a consistent routine is the easiest way to reduce resistance, stress, and anxiety as kids learn to anticipate. This is also especially important with resistive teens
- Do not ‘force’ a child to the table, but stick to the boundaries and expectations set.
- Continue to openly invite them to join without force or consequences. Reinforce why you like spending time with them. Keep it positive.
- Always set their place at the table even if they choose not to join.
- Make it fun: use conversation starter cards, have them pick dinner music, share “favorites”, rose and a thorn of the day, etc.
When partners are not on the same page
- Extremely helpful to have a conversation ahead of time about the importance, benefits, and expectations you both have to alleviate any additional pushback or fallout that may otherwise occur with implementing family mealtime
- Come to a compromise you both can agree to for a family mealtime expectations
- Remember, once the consistent routine is established, we know it has positive long-term health and relationship benefits for everyone in the family
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Importance of family mealtime … 00:01:30
Family “mealtime” can mean many things… 00:03:00
Family mealtime and health … 00:04:15
Family dynamics affect mealtime … 00:05:30
Components of family mealtime … 00:08:40
Mealtime complaints & resistance … 00:11:00
Partner involvement … 00:21:30
Episode Wrap up … 00:22:15
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from one of you. I get so many questions each week, and this is a great way for me to provide answers that lots of you might find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now on to today’s question, which comes to us from Andrea. Andrea writes: “I grew up in a home where we had meals together most nights, and I want to do the same thing for my family, but I’m struggling because my kids who are 3, 7, and 13 don’t want to sit at the table and participate in a family meal. They want their devices, they want to eat in the other room, or they just want to grab something and eat whenever they want. My partner doesn’t think it’s a big deal and tells me to stop trying to make family meals happen, but I don’t think the way we’re doing things is good for any of us. Do you have ideas for making family meals more manageable?”
Great question, Andrea. You bring up lots of things here that I think are important for families to be thinking about. So let’s talk about the big picture first. Family meals have a lot of benefits for kids, for adults, really for the entire family. And that’s not just something that is my opinion, it’s something that we have lots of research on, that shows how beneficial family meals are across the board. So we know that kids who come from families that have had family meals, at least some of the time, are less anxious, less depressed, have less risk of acting out behaviors, are at less risk of things like substance use, and getting into all kinds of dangerous behaviors as they get older. So we know that family meals provide protective factors for our kids against some of the dangerous or problematic things that they can get into as they get older, and also provides protective effects against worsening mental health kinds of things, and boy, is that important right now, especially with coming out of the pandemic and the huge rates of increased mental health issues that we’re seeing in kids and adults. So family meals, to me, aren’t just a nice-to-do. They really are something that we should be prioritizing for the benefit of our kids.
Now, I want to be clear that family meals can look a variety of ways. Family meals do not need to be every single person in the family sitting down at the table every night at the same time eating the same thing. It doesn’t have to look that way, although it certainly can. The research shows that there are benefits for kids, even if family meals consist of one parent sitting down, however many nights a week it’s workable, and having a meal with the child. It’s more about consistent routines. It’s about the presence of an adult or other family members, about the relationship building. I’m talking about it like it’s dinner, but it doesn’t even have to be dinner. Family meals can be any eating time, any meal of the day. For some families, depending on schedules and parent work shifts and things like that, the family meal might be breakfast, or it might be dinner, it might be lunch. Maybe it’s even snack time. You figure out what works for you, but the idea here is that we are prioritizing, as often as possible, sitting down together having some kind of routine around eating together.
Now I’ll tell you about another benefit that the research shows comes from family meals. Families that prioritize meal times together tend to be healthier, in terms of the foods that they’re eating and their physical health. Even if the food isn’t homemade, there are great beneficial impacts of having family meals, even if it’s takeout or something like that, so just know that. But by and large, families who prioritize mealtimes and eating together tend to eat healthier, tend to be preparing more foods at home, and that has benefits obviously for children as well. It doesn’t need to be fancy meals, it doesn’t need to be all homemade, but just the act of preparing something at home and sitting down to eat it together provides great benefits for our kids and us. The research around the impact that this has for us as adults, as parents, is valuable too. It helps us to be more mindful, helps reduce our stress levels, helps improve and support our mental health, and it really does support our relationship with our kids. So lots of good reasons for Andrea and all the rest of us to be thinking about how we can make family mealtimes work in our situation.
I think in the big picture, it’s also important to recognize that there can be lots of family dynamics at play. There may be very different developmental levels or ages of kids in the family, and so when we’re thinking about what’s going to be workable, we need to set reasonable expectations for family meals, and for everybody who’s participating in family meals, based on their specific developmental level and needs. So that’s one of the things that I think needs to be considered, is figuring out how this is going to be workable for you, and in Andrea’s case, she has got kids who are 3, 7, and 13. That’s a wide range of ages and development, and the needs and the expectations for a 3-year-old are going to be different than a 13-year-old most of the time, so we want to be thinking about that. So let’s delve into some of the specifics to think about here. It’s really important to set consistent expectations, and to model putting these into effect, even if you feel like you’re the only one as the parent who is consistently modeling these things, to put expectations and a plan in place and stick with it even if kids are complaining, even if they’re resistive about it. The reality is that for the vast majority of kids, once you set the expectations and say “This is what we’re doing, this is what is expected at mealtime, this is what our plan is going to be”, and you consistently adhere to those plans, most kids will get into the routine over time, will adjust to it, and it will end up being fine. Obviously there are exceptions: Kids with more significant neurodevelopmental issues, kids with trauma histories, kids with challenging behaviors. So those are things to consider, but for the vast majority of kids, once we get over the hump of saying, “This is how it’s going to be, and I know you feel like you don’t want to do it this way, but this is what we’re doing”, and you continue to engage in meals in that way and follow the routines in that way, they will be fine with it.
Now, for kids who have challenges: Maybe you have a child with eating challenges, really severe picky eating feeding disorders, maybe you have a child with significant behavioral challenges, emotional challenges, neurodevelopmental issues. You may need to consider additional strategies and support for those kids, and we’ll talk a bit about that. But I still want to say: Even in the case of kids with very severe emotional and behavioral challenges, very severe developmental disabilities, those types of things, it is a completely reasonable and beneficial expectation to have consistent family meal routines that involve people sitting and being together and participating in a family meal. So while there might be some accommodations, some adaptations that we need to think about and make for kids with challenges, it is still appropriate, reasonable, and I would argue really important and beneficial to create workable routines around family meals.
So what do I think about in terms of the basic components of a family meal? Well, it’s everybody together at the table, and I do mean the table. Now whatever table that might look like, whether it’s that your table is the counter in the kitchen with bar stools around it, or you have a dining room table or a patio table outside — whatever that is. Everybody is together in the same place. Everybody helps with something, whether it is helping to prepare food or helping to set the table or putting napkins out or filling the classes with water or helping to serve food. Everybody has a role. There are no devices or other types of distractions. So we’re not bringing devices to the table, we don’t have the TV on in the background. Some music is fine, but we don’t have things that distract from our presence with each other, together at the table and distract from the eating process. So those are the basics: Everyone is together in the same place at the same time, everybody is helping or playing a role in some way, and we don’t have devices or other distractions. Now the length of time is going to vary. You may need to keep that briefer for developmentally young children. So little kids or children who developmentally are much younger, we might have an expectation that they just sit there during the time that they’re eating. Or maybe we start out even just with a couple minutes at a time and then we let them go and do something else while the rest of us finish. So for time, there isn’t a hard and fast rule about how long they need to be. You really need to gauge that based on your family schedule and based on what is reasonable and appropriate for the ages and developmental levels of your kids. So those are the basics and I recommend having a basket or something, everybody deposits their device in it on the way to the table, especially if this is a new routine, if you’re shifting from everybody having their devices at the table to not, it can be a helpful routine to get into. We drop them in the basket on the counter, this means adults too because our modeling of that is critical. We can’t expect our kids to come to the table and not have their tablets, their phones, their whatever, if we have ours. So everybody puts them in a certain location that can be a helpful routine to get into.
Now, dealing with complaints or resistance. Some basic principles here. As I talked about with anything related to complaints or resistance from kids: We want to acknowledge how they’re feeling. They’re allowed to feel frustrated; they’re allowed to feel annoyed, they’re allowed to feel disappointed. However they’re feeling, we can acknowledge that and we can empathize with that. They’re allowed to have their feelings and we can respect that and say, “I get it, you’re feeling disappointed that I’m saying the rule is we’re not bringing our tablets to the table anymore, or you’re feeling angry with me, because this is when we’re eating, and it required you to stop doing something that you wanted to do.” So we can acknowledge and empathize, while still maintaining clear boundaries and expectations. That’s important. Just because kids complain or resist doesn’t mean that we need to abandon what our expectations are. In fact, that’s really problematic, right? So empathize and acknowledge but still have our clear boundaries. “It’s time to eat now, this is what we’re doing for our meal today.”
Now, if there’s a lot of complaining around the table during the meal, a couple options for that: One is to just make a statement like, “I understand, you’re feeling like you need to complain right now, that’s fine, I’m not going to respond to that, because we’ve already talked about it,” and then you can ignore it and allow them to complain. Another option is to make statements like, “Wow, I really enjoy my dinner more when people are talking instead of yelling or crying.” That’s just a statement of fact, you enjoy your dinner more when people aren’t doing that. You’re not telling them not to, because the reality is you have no control over whether a child decides to yell or cry, or whatever, through the meal, but you’re just acknowledging that, wow, I enjoy dinner more when people are talking with one another or when people are quietly eating their food. If there’s a ton of resistance or challenge, especially if you have a child who maybe has very explosive behaviors or takes time to ease into new routines, keep it very short initially. You can say “We’re going to sit down together, and you’re going to eat this one thing, and then you can leave.” Or you say, “Why don’t you just help me set the table, and then you can go sit at the counter. You can come up with some compromises if you have a child who can have very explosive reactions to things or who really needs time to ease in, but you’re still working toward that same goal of them having a role participating for whatever length of time is appropriate right now, and then we extend that over time, as they get more comfortable and used to what’s going on. Sometimes it can be helpful for kids to give choices around things: “We’re eating at the table. But where would you like to sit tonight? What job would you like to help with? You get to pick the napkins tonight, you get to decide what fork you want, you get to give whatever cop you want to to mom or dad. Give them some choices, you can make it kind of fun, give them some elements of control, and that can be helpful. Also can be very helpful to include a preferred food. This is, especially, if you have a really picky eater or a child with a feeding disorder. In general, I do not promote short-order cooking. Part of family meals is, “This is what I’ve prepared. This is what we’re having as a family, this is what we’re eating.” However, when you have an extremely picky eater or a child with a feeding disorder, it is very appropriate to make sure that something on the plate, something that’s being served is a preferred comfortable food that they will eat. When you do that, that dramatically helps reduce the resistance to coming to the table and eating with the family. And for some kids who maybe have more severe feeding disorders, they may not eat with the family, but they should still be expected to be part of the family mealtime because that exposure and routine is really important for them, not only for all the benefits I talked about at the start of this episode, but for them becoming more varied, comfortable eaters, even if they’re sitting at the table and have a plate in front of them and they’re eating something different or they’re not eating at all. They’re still exposed to the smells, the sights, the sounds, all of the things going on with the food that the rest of you are eating and that is extremely beneficial. So those are some ways to handle some of the resistance. Now, timers can be helpful here, especially for young kids or very resistive kids, kids who are not comfortable with these kinds of routines and need support with getting comfortable and settling into it. You can use a timer, “You’re gonna stay at the table for this amount of time, then you can go, you can compromise on that, decide what feels comfortable for them. And then slowly extend that out, you can use a sand timer, a visual timer, a kitchen timer, whatever, and the modeling is really important for being consistent. What are our routines around meal time? Because having consistent routines, even if the meals happen at different times — when kids know what to expect, and they know what’s expected of them, that helps reduce stress, anxiety and resistance. So having certain routines of setting the table or sitting down at certain spots, or how long we’re staying, those can go a long way to reducing resistance. Now, if you have a child with super intense resistance, and again, this is not the vast majority of kids, but I know some of you are dealing with kids with intense resistance. There are different ways to handle that, depending on the child. So some options would be around food, and when it’s served, saying “This is when we’re eating, this is what I’m making, this is how we’re doing this, I’m not going to be making a meal for you at a separate time.” Now, that is a very fair boundary to put in place. “I’m not making meals at separate times.” The qualifier here is we’re not talking about children with diagnosed eating disorders who have a particular plan for how you’re managing that, but it’s totally legitimate to say, “I’m not making meals at additional times.” Now you can decide based on your child and your values and what you believe is a parent, whether you’re going to allow them to make food for themselves, or however you’re going to handle that at other times. But it’s a completely legitimate and appropriate boundary for you to set with your kids, to say “This is what I’ve prepared. This is when we’re eating it, I’m sitting down, the rest of us are sitting down and we’re eating it, you decide whether you’re coming to the table or not, but I won’t be making a meal for you at another time.” That is legitimate. And then you decide whether you allow them to put food together for themselves. With teens who are very resistive around this, it’s important to just continue to model for them, to stick to the boundaries and the routines that you have established. “This is how we do this as a family”. Now you’re not going to force any kid. You’re not — absolutely do not drag them kicking and screaming to the table. That is not what we’re doing here. Especially not for our preteens and our teens. But we stick to the boundaries and the expectations; “This is how meals happen”, “this is how we’re doing things,” and then stick to the boundaries you’ve set around not providing meals or things outside of that time. Continue to invite your kids to join. You don’t force or give consequences, “If you don’t come to the table, I’m taking away your devices for the rest of the week.” That’s not going to be helpful. You continue to set the stage, set the pattern, model that pattern, we’re all sitting down to eat and continue to invite, “Love to have you, join us. Looking forward to seeing you at dinner, I hope that you’ll be at the table. I love to spend time with you.” Keep focusing on it from that perspective, and if they are doing their own thing around preparing their own foods, if you’ve decided that’s okay, you could join them in that, to sit and converse with them while they’re eating that constitutes a family meal, and you keep saying, “I so enjoy sitting and eating with you. This is so beneficial for me, I like spending time together with you like this, I hope you’ll join the entire family next time. So you can keep it positive and keep the invitation and the door open. Again, we’re not talking about the vast majority of kids here, but if you have a child who is highly resistive or is using this to — maybe it’s becoming a control battle or a power struggle. Don’t take the bait on that, and just keep the invitation open. You stay steady with the routines and the way of doing things that you have decided — that you and your partner have decided are most beneficial, even if it’s just you and your partner sitting at the table eating initially, if you have a really resistive child or children, you just keep modeling that.
Now some other options that keep it fun and engaging, if that’s helpful. You can have things at the family meal time that sort of help with conversation and engagement. They make great conversation card decks. You can start a routine of sharing, a rose and a thorn, something positive that happened and something challenging that happened. You can take turns sharing your favorites. Favorite parts of the day, or just favorites in general. Like today we’re going to share what’s our favorite color or what’s our favorite movie. You can let kids take turns choosing the dinner music that can be a great way to involve them and make it more enticing for them. You can let them choose themes sometimes. Keep it fun and come up with ways that help engage them in the process and help them buy into this approach to meals, and that can really help. And like I said, if all else fails, you and your partner, whoever the adults are in the family, sit down together and eat and engage in the meal. Set the table for everyone in the family, whether or not you think the child is going to join you. Set the table for everyone, invite everyone regardless of whether they attend, and then you sit down and you eat and enjoy your meal and model that. That modeling is very powerful, and especially for kids who are highly anxious, who have very reactive nervous systems, this can set the stage for them getting comfortable, and often will lead to them joining at some point during the meal or over time.
Now one of the things Andrea raised is that her partner says, “Just leave it alone, don’t deal with it if they’re resistive. I think it’s important to get on the same page with your partner to talk about why this is important, to talk about the benefits of it, why you want to approach it in this way and come to a compromise on what you can agree to. Oftentimes parents don’t want to push the idea of family meals because they don’t want to deal with all of the behavior and the fallout. But if you use the kinds of suggestions, supports and strategies I’ve shared here, that will massively cut down on the power struggles and all of the other pieces of that, which often will mean that partners can get on the same page with having these family meals. Sometimes if there’s another adult in the home and you’re not on the same page, having a good conversation and deciding together of how you’re going to start approaching family meal times is beneficial.
So, I hope this information is helpful for Andrea and all the rest of you who are looking for ways to implement successful supportive healthy mealtime routines. There are so many benefits to them. I encourage you to look at how to try to make this work for your family, even if there are accommodations and challenges that you need to work around. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to email@example.com. Thank you, as always for listening and being here, and I will catch you back next time.