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Recipe for a happy family

Recipe for a happy familyMaking time to sit down to eat together can be a struggle for busy households, but it’s an important social ritual that gives the whole family a psychological boost, says behaviour analyst Judi James. So is it time to ban TV suppers and give the dining table a polish?

If we eat together as a family at all these days, it’s likely to be side by side on the sofa with plates on our laps watching TV, rather than seated around a table chatting to each other about our day. With parents working longer hours and kids preoccupied with their social lives or exam revision, it’s no easy task getting everyone round the table at the same time.

So is it worth persevering when the initial reaction from some family members may be less than enthusiastic? For behaviour analyst Judi James, the answer is a resounding yes.

“Eating together as a family is an important psychological ritual that echoes the hunt/kill/eat rituals of our ancestors,” she explains. “Although food is now in constant supply, it’s useful to maintain a ritual that was created when it was rare, as the feeling of celebration and team-work can have a therapeutic and bonding effect on the family unit.”

Psychological and social benefits for the family

According to Judi, the ritual of preparing a meal and sitting down to eat it together has important psychological and social benefits both for the family as a unit and for individual members:

  • The social interaction reinforces the team feel of the family unit. It’s one of the best bonding rituals, making everyone feel safer and less stressed. This helps reduce tension both inside and outside the home. Everyone is reminded of the basic affections and team structure that lie beneath any frictions and rows.
  • Eating together provides a vital opportunity to have face-to-face interaction. By sitting facing one another for what might be the only time during the day, parents and children get a chance to read one another’s moods and feelings, and create deeper levels of rapport and bonding by the use of body language and a spell of undivided attention.
  • The ritual of eating together is a useful way to delegate task responsibility. Many household tasks, like cleaning, are of very low value to children, but food preparation and consumption is of recognised value. This makes it an easier method of gradual involvement, as the kids get given tasks that will help produce the meal everyone will eat.
  • The social ritual of sitting down and taking different seats at a table enforces the family pecking order in a very gentle way. It’s still usual for parents to take the end seats and the children the side seats, with older children moving further away from their mother’s side as they mature. This subtle ‘power posturing’ can do more to ensure parental discipline than arguments and dominant verbal behaviours.

Benefits for children's health and behaviour

Sit-down family meals provide an opportunity for children to develop social behaviour that is appropriate not just within the home but in the wider community. “Sitting down to eat gives parents a chance to provide and enforce some basic etiquette guidelines,” explains Judi.

“Although social manners seem dated, it’s still vital that children learn how to eat and behave at table in a way that will teach them how to respect other cultural and social behaviours outside the home.”

Reinstating the custom of sit-down meals might also help reduce the risk of obesity in some children, research suggests. The decline in family mealtimes has been cited as a contributing factor in the increased consumption of unhealthy fast foods and snacks among children and a rise in the levels of overweight and obesity in recent years.

There is even some evidence that children who regularly sit down to eat with the family achieve better GCSE grades than kids who don’t. According to a report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, “There is a strong relationship between regularity of having a family evening meal and GCSE attainment.”

With months of cold, dark evenings ahead of us, we’re all likely to be spending more time at home, so now could be a good time to reintroduce your family to the custom of preparing and sitting down to eat a meal together.

Plus, by reducing the amount that individual family members spend on snacks, takeaways, restaurant bills and ready meals, you might have extra money to put towards the Christmas presents fund. That could be all the incentive the kids need to join you at the dinner table!

To get you started, our nutritionists have created a delicious family meal, Honey and Lemon Chicken with Colcannon, that will appeal to kids and adults alike and works out at just £3.60 per portion.

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