Making family mealtimes happen

Even when it feels next to impossible to sit down and eat together

Chances are you already know how important it is to eat meals together as a family. Families who eat together regularly (more than three times per week) show improvements in many aspects of health including social development, and to develop a healthy relationship with food. But if you feel like getting the whole family to sit down and eat together at mealtimes is next to impossible, you’re not alone! It can be tricky to find time to eat together with a busy family schedule filled with extracurricular activities, work commitments, and homework taking up most of the time, especially in the evening, it’s tough! Let’s talk about how can we make family mealtime a priority and actually make it happen.  

Focus on the ‘how’, worry about the ‘what’ later 

Do find you only want to sit down for a family meal if you’re serving the perfect home-cooked meal you’ve slaved away on all day? And if it’s not up to scratch you find yourself thinking ugh it’s not worth it? You are your own worst critique. 

Ellyn Satter’s guide for Mastering Meals Step by Step says we should start by focusing on the ‘how’ of family mealtimes, and worry about the ‘what’ later, sometimes lots later! You don’t need a fancy, super ‘healthy’ meal to eat as a family. If you put pressure on yourself to make family meals perfect, you’re not going to be motivated to do so, let alone enjoy it. Eat what you’re eating now, but sit down together to do it.  

Start with family mealtime on select days that fits in with your routine 

Set achievable goals. It may not be possible to sit down together as a family every night to begin with. Select a few days a week that fit in with your family routine and go from there.  

Avoid the rush and keep it tech-free 

Try not to rush mealtimes. Allocate a 20–30minute window for sit down time. This gives the whole family plenty of time to feel comfortable and eat. Make meal times a tech-free zone. Encourage the whole family keep the TV off and put phones or tablets away. This can help make this time enjoyable – have an opportunity to talk about your day.  

Give everyone a job 

Giving everyone a job to do at mealtime can give each family member a sense of ownership, pride and enjoyment at mealtimes. This is especially great for older kids. Jobs can include setting the table, unpacking the dishwasher, clearing dirty dishes, or sweeping up crumbs when you’re done. This also helps take the pressure off mealtimes for you! 

Practice strategic snacking 

You want everyone to come to the dinner table hungry and ready to eat, right? To achieve this practice strategic snacking to support mealtime. Offer snacks between meals at set times for all members of the family. And try not to have anything but water between those set meal and snack times. This can help your family learn to regulate their appetite and eat when they are hungry. You may wish to put all food for the meal on the table and give all family members the opportunity to serve themselves.  

Make small tweaks to the menu, when you’re ready 

Once you’ve established set mealtimes and you’re getting bored of the meals you are eating, it’s time to change ‘what’ you are eating. Try not to make changes too hard and fast! This can disrupt the happy mealtime scene you’ve worked so hard to establish. Instead, make 1-2 small changes to the menu. Maybe you’ll start offering some zucchini to your margarita pizza, or maybe you’ll serve some carrots alongside chicken schnitzel.  

Say no to food rules and prioritise foods you enjoy 

Most importantly, to create an enjoyable mealtime environment avoid getting caught up in the food rules! There’s no need to stop serving foods your family enjoys. Remember nutrition isn’t food’s only purpose, it’s pleasure too. And when food is pleasurable, it’s more likely to turn into sustainable habits!