200th Ask Dr. Pat Blog! – A thought on Eating Together

Eating as a Family

People often ask how they can maintain a strong relationship with kids throughout their lives, perhaps especially during the difficult teenage years. There is no magic answer, no golden rule, all families have a different dynamic. But there is one very simple thing that every parent can do that will go a long way towards building a firm foundation for a strong relationship: Eat as a family. And the earlier you start the better.

The idea is not to simply eat in the same vicinity as each other. The key is the sharing and the communication that can come from this time together. Family dinners keep kids attached to their parents.

If your family doesn’t eat together you are missing out on one of the best opportunities to make a difference to your kids. It doesn’t have to be dinner, it could be lunch or breakfast. Families that eat out together may gain some of the same benefits. But those who graze for food at home, who watch TV while eating or have parents and kids eating at different tables, are out of luck.

I guess I was lucky. My parents always had family dinners. All of us (there were 10 kids) sat down and ate together every evening. There were always a few “extras” at the table. Sometimes the “extras” would be kids, sometimes adults. We talked, we argued, we learned how to relate. Our parents found out what we were up to.

Rituals were developed. When the discussion got heated, someone would repeatedly request “Pass the salt.” The conversation would change, sometimes suddenly, to an area that was less contentious. To the outsider, our dinners may have looked like a verbal brawl but it worked for us.

The family dinner is:

  • the glue that keeps parents and children in touch with each other
  • a time for children to learn the family’s values
  • an opportunity to learn social graces

Family dinners may also be a chance to learn how to:

  • cook
  • serve food
  • entertain
  • promote healthy eating
  • prevent obesity and other health problems

Dr. Pat’s simple rules for the regular family dinner:

  1. Serve food everyone likes. Some adventuresome side dishes are good too
  2. Show a genuine interest in others
  3. Turn off the TV
  4. Prohibit criticism or belittling
  5. Encourage everyone to tell something about their day

Celebratory meals at Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day, for example, perform a somewhat different function. Celebratory meals provide shared traditions such as: the singsong that accompanies Canada Day celebrations; the seafood buffet or the tortiere that mom prepares for Christmas; the barbecue that occurs at Thanksgiving. Celebratory meals often involve extended family and/or friends. Traditional foods are often served.

However, celebratory meals can also be a disaster if longstanding tensions that haven’t been resolved are played out at the table. So, if Uncle Harry gets drunk and becomes obnoxious, or if Aunt Mary starts hitting on her sister’s boyfriend, then disaster can loom. So, keep an eye on potential conflicts.

As often as you can, and at least three times a week, sit down at the same time with your kids, eat a meal together and talk about whatever is important to them. Have celebratory meals that bring people together. You will be surprised at the difference it can make. Your kids will remember these times and pass the traditions on to their kids.

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