Sitting down together as a family provides a regular opportunity to bond together, to share anecdotes from your day, laugh and joke but also keep abreast of serious issues and make plans together.
There are many other benefits to eating family meals together regularly: it’s easier on family finances to prepare one meal rather than lots of fridge raids and mini meals; your children will be more inclined to try new (and hopefully home cooked healthier!) foods; they’ll learn good manners and social skills - from not invading someone else’s personal space at the table to the ebb and flow of conversation - that will stand them in good stead for life.
You’ll even reap good grade rewards for your kids by having regular family meals. A government report tracking 19,000 schoolchildren provided compelling evidence for just how important family mealtimes are: teenagers are more likely to get five good GCSEs when they share family meals with their parents and siblings.
“Dinner times are central to communication in families – especially when everyone’s so busy these days , “ says Liat Hughes Joshi, author of New Old Fashioned Parenting: A Guide To Help You Find The Balance Between Traditional And Modern Parenting.
But we’re SOOO busy!
Long commutes, teens’ complex social lives, younger children’s after-school commitments can all chip away at family mealtimes and the expectation of everyone managing to sit down together at the same time. Nevertheless, while parents need to have some flexibility, it’s well worth making a commitment to family meals as much as possible. You can mix it up by eating outside in the garden on lovely long summer evenings, ordering in takeaway for a treat or going out for occasional meals using BOGOF vouchers.
“Friday night supper is sacrosanct in our family,” says mum-of-three Naomi Wilde. “I love knowing that however manic we’ve been during the week, this is our time to take stock and celebrate being a family.”
So how can you make mealtimes fun and interesting, not a chore (and that’s not just the cook!)?
DO play games
When conversation threatens to flag, Liat recommends playing ‘rose and thorn of the day’. “Everyone has to say the three best things that day and the three worst. It’s a good way to get the conversational ball rolling.”
Another favourite with young children is ‘would you rather...?’ and then explaining your choice, like “Would you rather live at the bottom of the sea or have a biscuit shop?”The options are sometimes surreal, quite often descend into potty humour but are always entertaining.
“On a recent family holiday we played cards after every meal and it was fabulous for family bonding with lots of teasing and laughter,” says mum-of-four Joanne Cole.
“When we got home, we realised we wanted to keep that social tradition going - and I love everyone not pushing back their chairs 10 minutes after I’ve slaved over a meal - so now we often play cards after supper. It’s a very easy way to chat without me seeming too intent on digging for information, which can be such a turn-off for teenagers.”
DON’T lecture or hector
If your children see family meals as a time for parents to be centre-stage, dispensing unasked for lectures and needling for reactions, children will quickly switch off from the conversation, become guarded and regard mealtimes as a bore to be got through in the fastest time possible.
“What doesn’t work if you want to promote healthy conversation at the dinner table is telling your child off - moralising, judging, lecturing,” says Noel Janis-Norton, parenting educator and bestselling author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting.
DO model good conversational skills
Children learn the art of conversation and communication from you, their parents. It can become effortless, but it’s still an art; one that will be a huge social advantage throughout their lives.
How to keep people interested without hogging the conversation. How to invite people to open up and encourage them to talk. How to make anecdotes interesting and entertaining. And, particularly importantly in our current world where so many people rush to take offence, how you can disagree with someone’s opinions, still like them but argue your own point of view coherently and passionately but without descending into insults and the personal ‘you always’.
DON’T ask questions that invite one word answers
Not unless you want your conversation to be a exhausting and pointless ping pong of questions sent over the dinner table and parried back with “Yes, no, dunno, fine... can I leave the table?”
Noel Janis-Norton advises that parents need to work on one key skill: reflective listening. This is a way of re-framing questions into statements that invite a response and de-personalise conversations. It can feel oddly unnatural but sound becomes second nature.
“Instead of asking, ‘Are you worried about your exams?’ you could say something like ‘Lots of kids your age are worried about exams’,” she says. “This makes it easier for a child to reply”.
DO talk about the big and the small
What everyone did today is your number one mealtime conversation. But children who are brought up talking about world events and whose general knowledge is good have been shown to have increased self-esteem and confidence. So don’t steer clear of news issues because they’re not ‘suitable for children’. You can frame most news in a way that will be understandable and interesting without being scary.