Reconnect at the dinner table

By Jennifer MacTavish, RD

Think about some of your best childhood memories, and then consider how many of them revolve around food.

How often do you think about a special person in your life when you eat certain foods? Most of us have strong memories that we can relate to food, like baking chocolate chip cookies with your grandma – what a simple way for her to show her love, by spending time cooking and eating with you (and sharing a good laugh as the burnt ones got tossed into the garbage bin).

Cooking and eating together helps us stay connected with our loved ones. The strong link between food and emotions make family meals invaluable. There is an abundance of research showing that children and adolescents who eat meals together with their families do better all around – nutritionally, emotionally and academically. Yet, for many of us, regular family meals are difficult to maintain. ‘Grazing’ and grab-and-go meals have become the norm. Many people, who do continue to eat together at home, do so with multiple distractions (like TV or cellphones) that undermine the family meal environment.

When compared with children and adolescents who eat meals with their parents less often, children and adolescents who eat at least one meal a day with their family have better food and nutrient intake; lower risk of being overweight or obese; reduced risk of substance abuse; improved social adjustment; better school performance and behaviour; reduced risk of disordered eating; and increased vocabulary in preschoolers, as outlined in the report ‘Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition (2012).’

Even minor adjustments to hectic schedules can have a positive impact on children and families. Taking a fast food meal into the restaurant with your family instead of eating it in the car for example, or swapping a high-protein shake for a bowl of cereal with your kids at breakfast, can make a difference in children’s lives.

Cooking together is a great precursor to eating together. Help your child develop a love of good food, and the confidence to cook, by involving them in meal planning and preparation. Sharing these family responsibilities also provides opportunities for parents to spend time with their children.

In her book ‘Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family,’ Ellyn Satter talks about the importance of family meals. Mealtimes are a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company, a time to talk and listen, a time to check in and reconnect with each other. It is important to create a relaxed atmosphere to allow those connections to take place.

Meals provide so much more than just nutrients, and Satter discourages parents from being ‘snooty’ about food. Expecting perfect and gourmet meals adds additional and unnecessary pressure around food that is counterproductive for getting us back to the table together.

Satter suggests the best place to start is by structuring regular meal and snack times. If meals and snacks are a free-for-all at your house right now, this will be effort enough without having to worry about having your meals perfected. Satter offers three specific strategies:

  • Focus on regular meal and snack times. Go ahead and eat your usual foods for now. The structure of the meal times is the first priority.
  • Keep snacks to snack times. Scheduling snacks to be at fairly consistent times each day will help your family come to the table hungry (which is not possible if they are grazing all day).
  • Aim to include four or five food items at each meal. This will give you enough variety at the meal to accommodate different likes and dislikes (without being a short order cook).

According to a 2007 UNICEF report, 93.8 per cent of 15-year-olds in Italy report eating together several times per week with their families, compared to only 71.8 per cent in Canada. In fact, in numerous European countries, meals are worthy of shutting down whole cities for! Let’s follow their lead and protect meal times.

At your next meal, sit down together at the table and reconnect with each other.

Jennifer MacTavish is a Registered Dietician with the Brockton & Area Family Health Team.
Learn more about the Family Health Team at or call to speak to one of the dietitians today.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of Grey-Bruce Kids.