Back to School: Family Meals without the Drama

By Orna O Brien 25th Aug 2021

Our Dietitian Orna O’Brien share her top tips for healthy and happy family meal times

COVID restrictions are easing, we are meeting friends and family once again, the new school year is just around the corner, and the ‘parent taxi’ is open for business as the after-school activities kick off – it’s fair to say our lives are going to become a lot busier and over-scheduled.

Nowadays mealtimes can present one of the few opportunities for spending time together as a family. However, multiple studies in recent years have shown that a third of people believe their family is too busy to share regular meals together. The start of the school year presents a great time to reset and put this protected family time back on the agenda.

Families enjoying mealtimes together generally have higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and calcium-rich foods.

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What are the benefits of sitting down to a family meal?  

The family meal is a surprisingly powerful activity. Research shows that families who regularly eat together have lower rates of depression and better family relationships.  In fact, it’s a stronger predictor of better academic performance than doing homework.

The evidence is particularly strong for teenagers; those enjoying family meals at least five  times a week are twice as likely to get A grades in school than those who eat together less than twice a week. Family meals also boost teenagers’ self-esteem, reduce their risk of developing eating disorders and make them four times less likely to engage in risky behaviours like smoking, drinking alcohol and using drugs.

Families enjoying mealtimes together generally have higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and calcium-rich foods, as well as lower intakes of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

But the power of these meals stretches even further – adults who had regular family meals as teenagers have healthier diets, lower rates of obesity, and are more likely to continue the pattern of sitting down with their friends and their own young families for mealtimes.

Adults who had regular family meals as teenagers have healthier diets, lower rates of obesity,

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Five tried-and-tested tips for a healthy family mealtime

Committing to a regular family meal is not without its challenges though. Parents are time-poor, sleep deprived, and have to balance busy schedules and work demands. Mealtimes themselves often bring their own stressors, be it fussy eaters or teens glued to their phones.

Five tried and tested tips 

Make the time

We’re talking less screen time, more conversation. Ask the whole family to commit to making the kitchen table a screen-free zone.

Family life is busy. Protect some time each week to plan your meals ahead and make shopping lists for what you need so you are less overwhelmed.

Be flexible – try to pre-empt any afterschool commitments so you can have meals at a time that suits most of the family. If dinner doesn’t work, can you all sit for breakfast?

Make it simple

Batch cook when you can and store extra portions in the freezer if you’re under time pressure.

Take advantage of frozen and pre-chopped vegetables this can remove the most labour-intensive part of preparing a meal.

Aim to make one large meal for all the family and eat it over two days – less cooking and often dishes like stews taste better on the second day.

Make it healthy

Don’t underestimate your importance as a role model. Serve healthy meals. Children learn from the adults in their lives so show your kids that you are eating healthy foods.

Aim for a balance of the main food groups – ideally, half the dinner plate should be filled with vegetables, a quarter should be protein like fish, beans or lean meat, and a quarter high fibre starchy food like potatoes with their skins on, brown pasta or brown rice. Check out our healthy recipes for ideas that will please the whole family.

Remember little tummies need smaller portions than adults – check out this guide from safefood on children’s portion sizes for more information.

Make it together

Throw on some music and get the kids involved. Once old enough, involve the kids in choosing dinner, preparing and cooking the food, setting the table and clearing up. This makes them feel like they are in control.

Make it count

Most importantly, savour the quality time with the family. Use the time to share with each other how your days went, help to solve each other’s problems, learn everything from new words to respecting other people’s points of view – this time is precious.

Wishing you all the very best with the beginning of the school year.

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