Mealtimes can be the perfect opportunity for families to connect and for parents to bond with their children. They can also be impossible to have with everyone's busy schedules. We talk to parenting experts about the significance of sit-down family meals and if there are 'right' or 'wrong' ways of doing them.

By Topher Gauk-Roger
July 01, 2020 12:00 PM
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Mealtime can take numerous shapes for any family, and finding time to eat meals together is a luxury some families don't often have. How important are meals spent as a family, and does it make a difference if they're done as a sit-down experience?

According to Jill Castle, RD and founder of The Nourished Child, research about family meals concludes that they play an important role in children's growth, development and health. "Not only do kids who eat meals with their families eat healthier, they are more likely to get good grades, have higher self-esteem and lower rates of mental health concerns," she tells PEOPLE.

It can be challenging for any family to make time together as a unit, yet alone to do it on a consistent basis, but it's these experiences that create a strong bond among family members, especially when children are involved.

"They are a huge help in modeling routines and behavior to our kids, for exposing them to a wide variety of food that we want them to eat, and for reconnecting after periods of being apart," Amy Palanjian, creator of Yummytoddlerfood.com and author of Busy Little Hands: Food Play! Activities for Preschoolersexplains to PEOPLE. "It's not always possible for everyone in a family to eat together due to schedules, and sometimes an adult may not be ready for a meal at the same time as a child and they may choose to have something like a glass of wine and a small snack while their child eats.

"It's the focus, conversation, and sitting down together without distractions that really matter—and it's okay if that looks different from a 'family meal,' " Palanjian adds. Experts talk to us about the significance of these family meal experiences, for both parents and children, and how effective they can be no matter how 'traditional' they are or aren't.

What do I do if my child refuses the meal in front of them? 

Children can be notoriously picky eaters, and are quick to point out when they aren't satisfied with a meal. It's a frustration every parent deals with at some point — but don't let those issues get in the way of the shared experience. As Castle points out, kids have variable appetites, so it's not something parents can easily predict. "As long as parents serve meals and snacks at predictable times (and they are made up of a balance of nutritious foods), kids will be able to eat according to their appetite," she explains.

It's important to trust your child's appetite and roll with it as they figure it out for themselves. "My approach is to include one or two foods with each meal that the kids usually like, even if those foods are simple sides like fruit or crackers," reveals Palanjian. "This provides an easy safety net and reassurance if they don't like the main dish, which can be incredibly helpful for more selective eaters. Then, if you know there are foods they usually like and they decide not to eat — and you follow this approach as your normal routine and barring any medical issues — you can assume the child is not hungry."

Even if a child isn't using a family meal to focus on the meal, they are getting that time to connect with their parents in a way they may not be able to during the rest of their day.

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How often are sit-down family meals necessary?

According to Castle, research shows a benefit when three to five meals happen together during the week, but stresses that it can be any meal, even if it's with one parent or caretaker. Research aside, it's important for parents to figure out what works for them. If three to five meals can work, great. If not, focus on making it work when possible, and don't add more stress by worrying about hitting a number every week.

"Research consistently shows the benefits to family meals, but I think you need to do what works best for your family and not add more stress to what can already be a stressful situation," advises Palanjian. "If schedules allow, have family meals as much as you can simply because it's easier to feed everyone at the same time and it's nice to have moments in the day when everyone is together. It's also okay to sometimes feed the kids first and have a meal with your partner or alone as a way to reconnect and perhaps enjoy different foods than you would eat with the kids." Parents can't forget that their children aren't the only members of their family, and still find time for themselves.

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If I have to choose one meal at which to do this, which is most important?

With busy schedules, deciding when — or even if — family meals are a possibility can be tough. Does it make more sense to do it in the morning to set a great tone for the day, or perhaps at dinner to end the day on a strong note? Palanjian says parents shouldn't stress too much about the when and to take advantage of whatever time works for the family. "Choose the one that makes the most sense for your life," she says. "If it's easier to eat together in the morning, that's totally fine, but if dinner is the only option, that works too."

The key is to make the experience as stress-free as possible for everyone involved. Parents shouldn't let logistical concerns get in the way of a memorable experience for the entire family. With the stresses of daily life (like work and school) already requiring so much energy, mealtimes should be a chance for family members to take a breath and just enjoy the company.

"What matters most is that mealtimes are low stress and enjoyable for everyone," says Castle. "Kids feel it when parents are stressed at the table, so if breakfast is too hurried, maybe lunch or dinner would be the better option."

Should I cater to my child’s meal requests?

A concern for any parent is how to accommodate their child's wishes or needs when prepping a meal. The concern is often that if kids don't have what they want during a meal, they'll ruin the experience for everyone. And while it's worth considering the needs of everyone in attendance, it shouldn't be the default decision. "While catering to a child's food requests works in the short run, in the long run, it limits food variety and supports picky eating," reminds Castle.

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It may feel like a quick fix to the issue, but the potential long-term consequences may not be worth the hassle. "I recommend that you keep your child's preferences in mind as you decide what to make, but to remember that it's your job as a parent to provide the opportunity for your kids to learn how to eat a variety of foods," Palanjian suggests. "That means that some meals will be your child's favorites and some won't and that's okay. If your routine is to sometimes serve their favorite foods and to sometimes make other foods (that are easy for them to eat and include one or two foods on the table they usually like), the kids will learn that not every meal will be their favorite but there will always be something on the table that they can eat."

Instead of worrying about whether or not your child will approve of the meal they're given, consider making them part of the process. This way they have an expectation of the meal before going in, and will feel the pleasure of being more included.

"Simple options can help kids feel like they have more power in what winds up on the dinner table, or you can also designate a night where the kids fully get to choose their meal," Palanjian adds. "Those moments of freedom can go a long way toward helping the kids be okay with less than favorite meals on other nights. Remember to talk through some of this with the kids and verbalize when they may next see their favorite meal so they have more information to help them understand that they will see those foods soon."

How important is it to have a meal that pleases everyone?

Creating the perfect meal can be a daily, daunting pressure on the mind of any parent who cooks — or orders food — for their family. You never want the family leaving a meal regretting the experience. Everyone involved is taking time out of their day to make this happen, so you want it be worthwhile for all of them — yourself included.

The key is to keep that expectation off your plate, or you'll continue setting yourself up for disappointment. "It can be virtually impossible to make a meal that everyone loves and if you strive for that everyday, you may wind up feeling incredibly frustrated and defeated," points out Palanjian. "Lower your bar for success, keep meals simple, use easy sides to your advantage, and remember that you're doing your best — and it's okay if that doesn't look at all like what you see on social media."

How do I make sit-down meals exciting for the whole family?

Mealtimes are something parents want the family to look forward to. If the family has a good time, they're more likely to prioritize them moving forward. Castle believes the first step is creating a positive vibe. "That means no nagging, pressure to eat, or threats of punishment," she says. "Then, connect with kids through conversation, games, and be sure to include kids in the conversation."

Conversation is the core of any meal, and when it comes to those with the entire family, it's important to consider all parties when tackling group discussions. "Remember to meet the kids on their level with conversation," reminds Palanjian. "This is probably not the time to hash out a budget with your partner. Little kids tend to love things like jokes, hearing stories about themselves or people they love, talking about their day, listening to music, or being silly." Adds Castle, "Avoid too much focus on food and eating performance (this comes across as pressure to some kids and can diminish joy and good eating), and try to focus on quality connection."

Keeping the mood light will make things more enjoyable for everyone, and may even build toward the goal of getting kids excited to come to the table.

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Should I involve the family in cooking?

A trick to ensure family members look forward to mealtime may be having them take part in the creation of the food. Especially with children, if they have involvement from the start, they may feel more ownership of the experience and have more reason to anticipate it. "Allowing children to be part of preparation and clean up not only teaches them about food and cooking, it also helps them build skills and self-esteem," points out Castle.

Cooking is something that might excite some kids, and leave others disinterested. Having kids in the kitchen can also make meals more stressful for parents, so it's crucial to find the part of the process that intrigues your kids most, and to see if that works for how you operate meal prep. "I find that my kids tend to taste foods that they don't always eat at the table when I let them wash or chop them (with kid-safe knives!), so cooking with kids can offer them low-pressure exposure to foods," reveals Palanjian. "But you need to be in the right frame of mind and to not be rushed since it usually takes longer and results in more of a mess. So maybe 5:30 on a Tuesday isn't the right time, but a weekend lunch could be a great time to have them help."

The most important factor for parents to remember is there's no one way of doing family meals, so it's not worth stressing over what's 'right' or 'wrong.' In actuality, meals take a different shape for every family, and it's about finding out what works best for yours.

"It can help to remember that 'family' can (and should!) mean anytime an adult has a meal with one child, even if the rest of the family is elsewhere," concludes Palanjian. "Reality is often much more variable and it's okay to do your best in your circumstances."