I am a steadfast advocate of eating family meals together. It’s the ethos my family food blog is based on. And eating family meals together can start as early as baby weaning stage and should carry on through adolescence, as much as possible.
Eating together is beneficial for families of all ages and stages, for a multitude of reasons; nutritional, behavioural, psychological and for healthy family functioning. Let’s take a look at these reasons in more depth.
The Nutritional Benefits
A 2020 Journal of Nutrition & Behaviour study showed that children within the age group of 2-18 years old and who ate three or more meals a week with the rest of their family ate 20% less unhealthy foods and ate 24% more vegetables and fruit.
Sharing just three family meals together each week, can enable your child to eat more healthy foods. Eating together gives you the opportunity to plan healthy meals. It also enables you to model good nutrition and eating behaviours. Better nutrition, as we know, has a positive impact physical health and weight management.
Once children reach teenager stage, their diets are often lacking in the vitamins and minerals they need. This is largely because they aren’t at home as much, and they miss out on healthy family meals and end up eating too many foods of low nutritional content. When families make the effort to come together more often for healthy meals, parents can ensure their teenagers are getting the vitamins and minerals they need.
The Family Functioning Benefits
The same 2020 study also showed that families with children aged 2-18 years who eat meals together 5 times or more a week are better connected and have stronger emotional bonds to each other. Other studies have shown that families who eat dinner together regularly have stronger communication and relationships. Having regular family meals also benefits parents, helping to maintain their social and emotional wellbeing.
The Behavioural & Psychological Benefits
There are many behaviour and psychological benefits steaming from eating family together, from baby right through the teenage years.
Eating Family Meals with a Baby or Toddler
Eating with parents allows babies and younger children to observe table manners and healthy eating habits which will shape their behaviour at mealtimes and with food for life. It’s also key for helping to prevent picky or fussy eating - which I’ll cover in the next section.
Once baby has reached second stage weaning, they can start to share in family meal times. You will need to tweak recipes slightly to make them baby friendly and serve their meal according to their age and stage, but doing this still will take a lot less effort than making the baby and the rest of the family two different meals.
All my family meal recipes come with recommendations on how to tweak and serve to babies and toddlers. You can read more about that here >
Eating Family Meals with a Fussy Eater
A review of 80 health studies that was led by researchers from the University of South Australia in 2021 showed that eating the same meal together as a family reduces fussiness around food. This is because when you eat together you are essentially role modelling meal times. You are showing your fussy eater how to behave at mealtimes and by sharing the same meal they can see others accepting and enjoying it. And role modelling is not just important for parents to do but also for siblings and friends. Young children often look at how their siblings or friends are eating and want to eat like they are.
Eating together also allows you to tackle fussy eating by creating a forum for distraction. By sitting and eating with a picky eater allows you to make conversation with them which can in turn, distract them enough to eat. Bear in mind that conversation should focus on subjects other than their food. Fussy eaters will do better with their meal if you don’t talk about what they are eating or apply any pressure to eat.
Having a picky eater eat family meals also sends the message that they aren’t in charge of mealtimes and reminds them that you are. They can be involved in meal planning and cooking, which also helps to reduce fussy eating, but you must still lead any collaborative meal planning by giving healthy menu options they can choose from.
Despite the fact that studies have shown eating the same meal together reduces fussy eating, families often cite fussy eating as a reason they DON’T eat together. This is usually because they want to avoid mealtime meltdowns and food refusal.
If you have a fussy eater at home, my Less-Picky Eater Plan can help to you confidently start tackling your fussy eater problem and cook just one meal for everyone. Have a read here >
Eating Family Meals with an Adolescent
Several studies have shown that eating meals together as a family, five or more times a week can prevent adolescents (10-18 years old), particularly girls, engaging in substance abuse, delinquent activity, early sexual activity and are at lower risk of developing depression. Eating together as a family five or more times a week can also help prevent eating disorders in adolescent girls.
This leads back to the family functioning benefits. The individuals in families, particularly with adolescent children, have such busy lives that coming together for family meals provides precious time to connect and communicate. Eating together as a family often allows for closer connections to form and creates a greater sense of belonging for the children. Family meal times allow everyone to discuss their day, any sensitive issues they might be having and they also provide a forum for problem solving together. This can all lead to a healthier adjustment through these adolescent years.
The Prevention of Childhood Obesity
Sharing meals together can also help prevent childhood obesity as children eat slower when they are chatting, feel full quicker and in turn end up eating less.
Eating Family Meals Together Saves Resources
Cooking multiple meals for different family members is not only time consuming, it is costly. Families who do this end up spending more on their monthly food shop. Also, by not regularly serving new and varied healthy meals, the child just gets stuck in a cycle of eating the same meals, often of lower nutritional value, becoming more and more resistant to try varied meals as time goes by. If you currently have a weaning baby or a toddler you can avoid getting stuck in this cycle by cooking varied healthy meals and introducing new ones regularly, from the start. Later, if they do seem to progress into being a picky eater, just continue cooking varied meals as you were, don’t change course.
The Challenges of Eating Family Meals Together
As we’ve seen, eating together has many benefits, from role modelling for infants and younger children to family connectedness and physiological benefits for older children. But eating together is challenging for many families. I’m going to run through all the different reasons why families don’t often eat together and try to tackle some of those issues with suggestions for how families CAN eat together, as much as possible.
Reasons Why Families Don’t Eat Meals Together
If you fall into one of these groups, you can click on the link to jump down to the relevant section which will give you tips on how to overcome the barrier and help you to eat together. Families find it difficult to eat together for the following reasons:
- Their child is a baby or toddler and their routine doesn’t allow it
- They have a young child (3-7 year old) and are still stuck the routine of cooking an early dinner for them, followed by a second dinner later for themselves and their partner
- There is a fussy eater in the family
- The family members have busy schedules, particularly where one parent works late or they have teenagers who are often not home for dinner
- Different family members have different diets
- They can’t afford to cook family meals
- The parents don’t have the cooking skills they need to cook family meals
- They have always allowed their children to eat in front of the TV/iPad or while gaming because it’s easier
- The family doesn’t have a dining table to eat together at
How to Eat Family Meals Together
Eating together can be easier said than done. What follows is my advice for overcoming the barriers to eating together as a family. But there are no quick wins here. Each one requires work and commitment, but the benefits for your family unit are immense.
Family Meals with a Baby or Toddler
Most families will find it hard to eat dinner with their baby or toddler, unless they have a late bedtime & wake routine.
If you are a stay-at-home parent or are on maternity/paternity leave and your baby or toddlers bedtime routine mean it’s too early for at least one parent to eat with them, then make sure to eat lunch together instead. Eating with one parent on week days is better than with none, and on weekends you can make the effort to all eat together. Once your baby has achieved first stage weaning, they can move onto sharing in family meals. My meals are suitable for weaning, see how here >
If both parents are working and little one is at nursery, then the only way you can do this during the week is to eat an early dinner with them.
Family Meals with Young Children
If you have preschool or primary school age children and you’ve always fed them an early dinner and then cooked for yourself and your partner later on, it’s time to think about transitioning to one family meal. As they get older and their bedtime gets later, it’s the perfect time to say goodbye to cooking two dinners and eating separately. Here are my tips and routine suggestions for transitioning to cooking just one dinner for the whole family.
Start doing family dinner once your child’s bedtime has been pushed back to 7.15-7.30pm. Initially do family dinner for 6pm and then as their bedtime continues to move back, you can move back family dinner time. You will be amazed at how much more free time you have during the day once you scrap doing two dinners, especially as dinner gets later and later.
My recommended family dinner / bedtime routines are:
If your child usually has fruit or yogurt after their dinner, as their bedtime gets later and so does their dinner, it’s a good idea to bring the fruit/yogurt forward to afternoon snack time. Once they start school, they will benefit from a bigger, balanced snack (fruit + a yogurt/biscuit/ice lolly) when they get home. And stick to just one snack time in the afternoon so that they have a good appetite for dinner.
Family Meals with a Fussy Eater
Don’t let your picky eater rule meal times. They should be eating family meals with everyone else. You are in charge or the menu, they are in charge of how much they eat. See my three step Less Picky Eater Plan and all my tips & tricks for tackling fussy eaters here >
Eating Family Meals with Busy Schedules
Life is busy, often one parent works too late and can’t get home at a reasonable time for dinner, or teenagers are out with friends and not around at dinner time.
Four days a week my husband doesn’t get home from the office until around 8.30pm - much too late for my 5 and 9 year old to eat dinner. So for four dinners a week he doesn’t eat with us, but I still make sure I eat with the kids. Having one parent eating with the kids is much better than no parents eating with them. You can still do role modelling, bonding, connecting and problem solving with one parent - a lot of families are single parent families after all. And then the other three days a week he is here, we eat dinner and lunch together.
When I cook a family meal on an evening he is at work, I keep it warm for him in my Instant Pot (even if I’ve not cooked the meal in there - drop a comment below if you are interested on knowing how), or in the oven at 70ºc / 150ºf to keep it at a safe temperature. Or I cool it down and he heats it back up when he’s home.
When it comes to teenagers, it’s important to let them have some freedom, but family mealtimes are also important. As covered above, studies show that eating at least five meals together a week gives a multitude of benefits for adolescents, particularly females. To achieve this, each week you could agree with your teenager the five meals they will be home for.
Cooking Family Meals for Different Diets
There are many different diets that can come together under one roof. They fall into two categories. Allergy required diets and diets of choice. If you have family members with different diets there is no escaping the extra work load that is going to give you. But there are ways to make life a little easier.
The key to being able to eat together and the same meal is to allow yourself a block of time each week to meal plan. And you shouldn’t have to do it alone. As soon as you feel your kids are old enough to help with dinner, get them to start helping you. If family members are CHOOSING a different diet from everyone else in the family (non-allergy diets), then put some of the responsibility on them. Ask them to help find new meals to try. They can search online for diet specific meals and also on Pinterest for recipes. They could create a Pinterest board to pin their meal ideas and share that with you. You can then refer to it when you meal plan.
Here are the rest of my meal planning tips for families with different diets:
- Cook at least one meal a week that just caters to the different diets, for all of you to eat to help give you a break. For example, if you have a gluten-free family member and a vegetarian family member, cook on gluten-free meal for everyone to share and one vegetarian meal a week to eat together.
- When finding new recipes, look for ones that include mostly ingredients you can all eat, and ones that you can substitute out elements that can’t be eaten by someone for dietary reasons. For example, if you have a vegetarian or vegan in the family and you find a chicken and vegetable tray bake recipe you’d like to make, bake the chicken in a separate tray and include their chicken alternative in the tray with the vegetables.
- When you meal plan, make a note of ingredient or garnish swaps or omissions for the different family members. You can use my FREE Meal Planner with a section for Diet Tweaks. Download it here.
- Search online for variations of common recipes and include the specific diet, for example, search ‘gluten-free stir fry’ or ‘diary-free fish pie’
- Plan at least one ‘build your own dinner’ meal a week, like tacos, pizza, rice or buddha bowls and jacket potatoes. These can be easily adapted to each family members preferences, everyone can complete their own dinner!
- Cooking for different diets is costly. Try to plan your meals around what’s already in your cupboards and fridge, plan 2-3 weeks ahead and aim to use up all the ingredients in that time. Also, look out for whats on offer and always freeze left overs for another time.
- Create a family meals list and when you find new meals that work for the different diets in your family, add it to the list. Make sure you have a system of keeping the recipe for quick reference. You could do that in a notebook, in a spreadsheet or create a bookmark folder in your browser to save the recipes in or create a Pinterest board for a visual collection.
Here are some of my ideas to help you cook just one meal for a family with different diets:
VEGETARIANS & VEGANS
- You could cook one dish two ways in parallel; a meat version and a meat-free version and freeze the leftovers for another meal
- Cook one or more vegan / vegetarian meals for the whole family each week. Cutting down on meat and poultry intake will allow the whole family to eat more sustainably.
With meals where the meat is cooked separately to the rest of the meal you could:
- Cook a meat-free version alongside it. For example, if you are baking meatballs, you could cook some meatless meatballs on another oven tray for them.
- Change their protein to pulses and more vegetables. For example, if you are making a rice bowl with chicken or meat, make theirs into a Buddha bowl by adding adding other options like tofu, avocado, pulses etc.
- Meals with cream sauces - cook the sauce separately and serve theirs without
- For meals with a cheese topping, sub theirs for a diary free version
- Cook the entire meal with non-dairy butter and milk
- Look for meals where the carbohydrate is cooked separately enough to be left off or substituted
- Use lettuce leaves instead of burger buns or tortilla’s
- Sandwich fillers can be served on their own with a salad instead of inside bread
- When cooking a pasta dish, serve the pasta sauce over just the protein for them
- Serve stews and casseroles to low carb family members without the potato and ensure they have plenty of vegetables or pulses instead
TIME & MONEY SAVERS
- Commit to permanent substitutions for basic ingredients you cook with, depending on the diets in your family. For example, if you have someone on a non-dairy diet in the family, permanently switch to a non-diary milk and butter for cooking
- Look for diet specific options for sauces to use for the whole family, for example, always use tamari instead of soy sauce if you have someone with a gluten-free diet in your household
- When you are cooking meals that will require you to prepare and cook extra diet specific elements, look for pre-prepared ingredients like ready cut vegetables whenever you can. This will save you some precious time in the kitchen
- Where possible cook more than you need so you can freeze portions for another meal
Family Meals on a Budget
The key to eating family meals on a tight budget is to meal plan. And not only meal plan that week, but for the next 2-3 weeks. That way you can use up all the ingredients you buy without wastage. And to find new recipes, you don’t need to spend money on cookbooks - Pinterest and Instagram are a great source of family meal recipes, family food bloggers like myself will post all their new recipes there. You can also subscribe to receive their new recipe emails on their websites. Have a search and follow as many family food bloggers as you can to access free recipes.
When shopping, always look for the supermarket branded items as these will be cheaper, plus sometimes they have their own value range which will help you to save even more money.
I also recommend that you sign up to supermarket loyalty programs, especially ones like Tesco’s Clubcard. You can the sign up to emails or check their website for loyalty program offers, as well as other offers when you meal plan (be careful to check the offer end date).
Eat More Veggies
Another good way to keep spend down is to eat more vegetarian meals. Vegetables are cheaper than meat, poultry and fish so cutting back on the number of meals you eat with these as the hero, will help to bring down your food spend. It’s also a good way to eat more sustainably. Another thing you can do with some meat and poultry meals is to half the amount you use and double up on another ingredient in the meal. This works particularly well when you are cooking a recipe that contains pulses. Instead of using one tin, you use two and then half the quantity of the meat or poultry.
If you are eating more vegetarian meals with a baby or toddler, just ensure they have plenty of protein during the day through diary products, pulses, eggs and nut & seed butters.
If you are struggling to afford food, search online for your nearest food bank for support.
Making Family Meals with no Cookery Skills
There are a multitude of cookery classes available, and since COVID many of these are available to access online from the comfort of your own kitchen. Some classes you can even take part in with your child, so you can both learn to cook together.
If affordability is an issue, there are some free classes available. There are providers of classes you can access for a very reasonable low cost and often these will have the option to apply for financial assistance as well if you can’t afford to take part.
Have a look at your local council’s website for adult learning cookery courses. You’ll be able to enrol for in person or for virtual classes for free or for a small fee and you can also apply for financial assistance if you need help to pay for it.
Also have a look at Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, their cookery classes are dotted around the country and some are virtual. They do ask for a small fee, but again you can apply for financial assistance if you need it.
I would also recommend you check out Project Food as they hold free zoom classes as often as they can. In addition, you can search online for free cookery classes and support in your area.
Eating Family Meals without Distractions
It’s often easier to give everyone a plate of food and let them go off and eat it where they want, which will often be in front of a screen. If you have be doing this as a family, and especially have younger children, you’ll need to lay out a clear transition plan. Tell the family that from next week there will be no more eating in front of a screen - everyone in the family will be expected to sit at the family table and eat together. Keep reminding them every meal time that this will be happening and when. Giving them a week to adjust to the idea will make the transition easier than just switching overnight.
Eating Family Meals Without a Dining Table
It’s understandable that not having a dining table makes eating as a family difficult, but if you can all still sit together somehow in the same room - on sofas and chairs and with screens off, you can still connect and bond over a family meal.
Engaging the Kids in Cooking Family Meals
Having the kids help to cook has several benefits. It will help them to learn life-long cookery skills, equip them to make healthy food choices and helps to tackle picky eating.
Toddlers & Preschool Age Children
Involve them in as much of the cooking process as you can. For each of my recipes in the Kids Cook Too section, I give a tip for what they can safely help with. You can also buy good toddler knives that they can even help to safely chop food with, under your supervision.
Make seasonal themed recipes together like baking and decorating Christmas cookies, gingerbread houses and Halloween and Easter cakes.
5 - 11 Year Olds
At this age they can start helping you cook more regularly and you can give them a bit more responsibility in the kitchen, but still with your supervision.
You can also have them help you with meal planning. Ask them to suggest healthy meals or choose between different healthy options you suggest. You could do the weekly meal plan and then ask them each day to choose from the planner which meal they’d like to have that evening.
You could start a vegetable patch in the garden or allotment together, and give them some responsibility for looking after it.
12 - 18 Year Olds
Get adolescents more involved with cooking, teach them life-long cookery skills and educate them on good, healthy food choices by:
- having them help you cook dinner one night a week. Then, when they have learned basic cookery skills, give them the responsibility of cooking a healthy meal of their choice one night a week
- Have them help you with meal planning, task them with helping to find healthy meals you can all enjoy and have them help you write shopping lists
- Encourage them to cook when they have friends over. They can all muck in and cook dinner, meals like homemade pizza, taco’s or fajitas are a good choice for that
The Family Meals Movement
The FMI Foundation in the US launched and declared September as National Family Meals Month in 2015 and following that, the Family Meals Movement. They work with many food retailers and associations in the US to promote sharing family meals together, educating on the benefits of doing so and giving families the understanding and tools of how to do so. I will be supporting the #familymealsmovement and campaigning for a similar initiative to be launched in the UK.
Find your next family meal to share together here >
If you have any questions for me about how you can eat together more as a family, please post them in the comments at the bottom of this page and I will respond as soon as I can.
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