Child Rights Advocate and Research Director of Save The Children New Zealand Jacqui Southey, explains why eating dinner as a family is so much more than just food.
A family that eats together stays together… or so the saying goes. But throw in daycare and school pick-ups and drop-offs, sports or music practice, work, general life admin, housework… and arranging a regular family routine around mealtimes becomes a sometimes near-impossible task.
Our lockdown experience in Aotearoa taught us that many kids loved the slower pace and more time at home with their whānau. Sharing kai together and news from your day helps strengthen family bonds. Research also shows that families that eat dinner together tend to eat healthier and more balanced diets. In addition, the habit of dining together with your tamariki also offers some additional lesser known benefits, such as:
With increasing pressures on Kiwi whānau, stress can affect even the youngest members of the family. Having dinner with the family can be a great source of stress relief for every family member, not just young kids. Parents can take this time to catch up with their children to hear about their everyday concerns and spot any irregularities that may need further intervention. A family dinner is an important time to slow down from the hustle and bustle of life and reconnect.
Stress relief is not only good in the short term, but supports children’s mental wellbeing and resilience long term. Children who have regular dinners with their families are less at risk of mental illness – they tend to be happier and have healthier lifestyles. Teens who have regular dinners with their families are also less likely to experiment with destructive habits like smoking, drinking and drugs.
We know it’s not always possible to eat together, but every meal together counts. Dinner time can provide parents with an opportunity to create a safe and nurturing space for children to talk and share their news or any challenges that may have come up for them during the day. That means creating a space for conversation, free of distractions from work or mobile phones, a place where children feel heard. Children’s self-esteem is boosted by the adults around them. When they regularly talk to their parents, they feel supported and are more likely to share any problems in their lives. Sharing regular family dinners can be an effective yet simple way to nurture strong, healthy children.
Studies show that children who eat regular dinners with their families – at least three times a week – tend to perform better in school. Creating a healthy and supportive home environment means that children have a positive environment to learn at home and are more likely to succeed at school. Young children pick up skills and knowledge from their parents, so having regular interactions with your children during family dinners is an important learning time for them. Kids can develop by mimicking their parents and family members, which allow them to develop in a healthy, natural way.
It’s no surprise that eating out is often more expensive than cooking at home. If you regularly eat takeout or go out for dinner, your household budget is likely to suffer. Going out to a restaurant can be a fantastic way to celebrate special occasions together as a family. But it can also be harder to stick to a healthy and balanced meal when you’re eating out, and for young children it is a more relaxed space eating at home. Buying groceries, planning nutritious and delicious meals, and cooking together also offers other opportunities for family bonding time. Cooking, eating, and cleaning up together will also teach your children important lessons around teamwork, sharing responsibilities and valuable life skills.