The Secret To Successful Family Mealtimes During COVID-19 (and after)

The Secret To Successful Family Mealtimes During COVID-19 (and after)


Verena Dickson, MSc, RNutr

Child Nutritionist

The lockdown in so many countries has brought families back to the dinner table together. This is great news! Research has made a strong point for family mealtimes. It has been shown that children who have regular family meals do better nutritionally, emotionally, socially, and even academically! Having family meals is also one of my favourite tools for helping kids build a positive relationship with food.

However, while many families love and enjoy their newfound time together, other families struggle with old routines being disturbed and familiar structures being thrown out of the window. 

If your family mealtimes seem more like madness than mindfulness, you are in the right place. Follow these five simple steps from mealtime chaos to connection.

Take the pressure off yourself.

Getting a home-cooked dinner on the table every single day can be a challenge. But try getting three meals a day plus countless snacks on the table! If it seems overwhelming, that is because it IS!

Try planning meals in advance

Meal planning might seem like a timely chore, but it saves so much time in the long run. It also stops you from doing too many trips to the supermarket, which is an additional plus during times like these.

Eat what you already eat, just as a family

You don’t need to change what you eat to have successful family meals. Family meals have the connotation of being elaborate, home cooked meals. But that’s wrong. A family meal is any meal you share with the family, it can be a take away curry, a pizza cooked from frozen or a visit to your favourite restaurant (once we are allowed again…). 

Stick to quick and easy family meals

If you don’t enjoy cooking much, that doesn’t make you a bad mum! Choose super quick and simple meals that your family enjoys. There are countless recipe suggestions out there (Jamie Oliver’s 15 min meals is one of my favourite cookbooks for a quick dinner fix). I also posted my top 10 super simple and quick families here.

Try to involve everyone in the family

Chores like meal planning, food prep, setting the table and cleaning up can be split between all family members.  From 2-3 years of age, kids can help setting the table. 4-5-year olds can help with cleaning away after a meal and from age 6 you can involve them in the kitchen. Children enjoy contributing to the family, they learn responsibility and take pride in their work.

Take the pressure off your kids

Once we have put all the effort in and cooked a meal, it can be really frustrating if your children decide they are not very hungry, or they don’t fancy what you have cooked. I know it can be challenging, but let everyone decide for themselves what and how much to eat from what you provide for the meal.

Pressure of any kind usually backfires. If you try to get your child to eat more, they will likely eat less and if you try to get your child to eat less, they will most likely try to eat more. If you’re trying to make her eat broccoli… you get the idea.

Pressure can be positive and negative. Positive pressure would be things like applauding your child for eating vegetables or giving them a treat for eating up their meal. Negative pressure would be to bribe them, restrict them, or nag them to eat something.

Remove the pressure from your children by following the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Thus, it is your job to establish a snack/mealtime structure and to provide the food. But once a meal is served, it is then 100% up to your child to choose what and how much they want to eat from what’s on offer.

Set the scene

Have a dedicated space for family mealtime. In most cases this would be the dinner table, but it doesn’t have to be. Not all families or cultures eat at a table. The important thing is to have a dedicated space for the family to come together and share a meal, without distractions.

A few years ago, I was invited to a family meal in Oman. When I entered the room, there wasn’t a table, but a big mat on the ground with comfy cushions all around. The food was served on lots of different bowls and plates on the mat, it was wonderful! While the family didn’t have a dinner table, the entire room was dedicated to family mealtimes.

Sharing a meal with your family also means sharing quality time. Therefore, keep outside distractions to a minimum, switch off the TV and think about implementing a no-phone rule during dinner time.

Engage in conversation

Family mealtimes can be a wonderful time to bond! Instead of nagging about eating their greens, ask your kids engaging questions. There is so much more we can talk about than everyone’s food choices. I know it is nice to hear a “that tastes delicious” or “thanks for cooking, Mum”, but try to keep food talk to a minimum, as too much talk about the food in front of them can be perceived as pressure by little ears.

I’ll admit How was your day? might not quite cut it during lockdown, when your kids spend all their time in your presence. But, how about these:

What five words do you think best describe you? 

If you had three wishes what would they be?

If you could invent anything, what would it be?

If you had to give everyone in the family new names, what would they be?

If all of us were animals, what kind of animal would each family member be?

Release your kids

You want to keep mealtimes positive. But keeping kids at the table against their will, or longer than they are happy to can end in tantrums. Young children have relatively short attention spans and they might get bored when they have finished eating. If they start misbehaving at the table, it can ruin everyone’s dining experience.

It is fine to let your kids off when they have finished eating. Set up a quiet activity for after dinner (in the same room if your kids are very young) and let them leave the table when they are done. A quiet activity helps keep your mealtime calm, but it is also not SO exciting that your kids would compromise their dinner to get to that activity. That way you can enjoy the rest of your dinner in peace. The older your kids get, the longer they are likely going to stay at the table. Children love and value your attention, so if you engage them in good conversations, they will stay at the table without your begging.

1 Comment


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May 22, 2020 at 5:38 pm

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