Do we overthink family meals? 5 realistic stress relief tips

Eating together regularly as a family has long been promoted as a simple solution to improving health and well-being.

We’re told that to achieve these suggested benefits, we must follow an age-old perfect formula: the whole family at the table, happily sharing a home-cooked meal and talking without distraction. But the modern reality includes time-poor families, fussy eaters, siblings at odds and stress over what meals to cook — not to mention the pressures of cost-of-living. This combination can make getting family meals difficult, if not impossible, for many families.

Research tells us that families who eat together frequently are more likely to have a better diet, better family functioning, and children with higher self-esteem. But these studies cannot tell us whether a family gathering over a meal is the reason for these results. It may be that families who eat well are more likely to eat together.

But how can we make family meals more realistic and less stressful?

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We are not sure what the link is

The previous systematic review attempted to disentangle this relationship. But we were unable to provide conclusive answers, largely due to limitations of the study designs. The researchers did not look at factors such as physical activity, screen time, and sleep separately. And they measured “success” differently across studies, making it hard to compare.

Therefore, we do not know for sure that a family meal is good for health, only that there is a statistical link between families who eat together and family health.

And we don’t know which side of the family meal might be responsible. The answer may relate to food quality, screen use, dining atmosphere, or family conversations.

Night challenge

In Australia, family meals often take place in the evening because it is one of the few times that families are home at the same time. About three-quarters of young children engage in family dinners with their caregiver more than five nights a week.

Although many parents consider family mealtimes important, they can also be stressful to achieve.

Family meals are more than what happens at the table. It takes intention, effort and planning. This labor can become a relentless cycle, and most commonly, the mothers are the ones who bear the burden. Many find it difficult to go.

Keeping meals simple and including raw foods can relieve stress.

Managing meal times

The action continues once the family is seated together.

Eating enjoyable meals and meaningful conversation may not happen naturally. Again, it’s often moms who turn relationships and emotions around the table.

And mealtimes can get even more complicated when there are multiple kids in the mix. Some parents allow TV or other screens to encourage children to eat and avoid arguments. This strategy has been linked to less-than-optimal nutritional intakes, but can make meal times possible, and more manageable.

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5 tips to relieve stress

So, how can we rethink what a successful and meaningful family meal looks like? Here are five ideas for beginners:

1) It doesn’t have to be dinner

Opportunities to eat together come at different times of the day, and not all family members need to be present. A meaningful eating event can be as simple as sharing a snack with the kids after school.

2) It doesn’t have to be perfect

There’s no shame in reheating a frozen meal, tossing pasta and salsa together, serving vegetables raw, eating on a picnic rug in the living room, or watching the occasional family TV show.

3) Don’t force the conversation

Meals are a great time to bond, but it doesn’t always come easily after busy days at work and school. Simple word games, listening to music, and quiet time can be just as much fun.

4) You don’t have to do it alone

Get creative with sharing family meal tasks with kids and partners. You can design the family menu together, have a shopping list everyone can contribute to, or split the laundry.

5) There is no magic number

There are no number of meals suitable for every family. It’s all about choosing how and when you can.

Parents and child sharing breakfast at the table
Perhaps breakfast is the easiest time to get together in your home?
Unsplash, CC BY

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Rethink family meals

When it comes to family meals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We need to better promote realistic and achievable family meals, to reduce the pressure on already overburdened families.

We should also consider whether systemic changes are required to support parents to have the time and energy to bring their families together for a wholesome shared meal. This could include supporting workers to finish preparing meals early or providing healthy, affordable foods. We can also look to other cultures for inspiration.

More evidence is needed to understand which components of a family meal are the most beneficial, so we can prioritize them. Innovative research methods, such as observations of mealtimes in families with a range of cultures and combinations, can explore how eating occasions unfold in real time.

Family meals can be a positive experience, with potential for good health outcomes. But they can be even better if we reduce all the pressure and expectations that surround them.

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