Most parents would agree that serving regular, nutritious meals to their children is important but what about having family meal times?
According to a study published in BMC Public Health, only 59 percent of Australian parents with children aged six months to six years reported eating dinner with their child every evening.
We know it's not always easy to find the time to sit down as a family and eat a meal together but it is important to try and make it a priority as much as you can.
Sitting down to eat a meal together is a great way to spend quality time as a family. This quality time encourages conversation and presents an opportunity for an open channel of communication between family members. This may encourage children to share positive experiences about their day, as well provide a comfortable environment to discuss any issues.
In addition to creating a platform for open communication within a household, family meals can promote healthy eating patterns and attitudes, which is important for encouraging children to develop a positive relationship with food and their body.
Establishing healthy eating patterns and attitudes in the early years can protect a child from developing problems with food and eating later on in life. As food is the fuel for our bodies, it's important that we make the relationship with food a positive one.
The main focus of meal times should be valuable communication, rather than comments on what your child is eating and how much.
So how can family meal times really help?
It is the conversations, attitudes and behaviours when eating together as a family that can be heavily influential towards shaping your child's relationship with food.
We all know that parents are role models and children are like sponges absorbing what they see, hear and perceive. So it's important to remember that the knowledge and habits children gather from the dinner table are likely to be carried with them throughout life. There is also evidence that family meals can be protective against a range of mental health issues.
Reinforcing key messages to help children create a positive relationship towards food and their bodies is important. In our Body Image Parents' Guide, we encourage parents to communicate to their child that health is more important than looks. This includes encouraging children to eat a balanced diet to 'be healthy', 'feel good', and 'have energy', rather than lose weight or avoid getting fat.
It is also recommended to avoid labeling foods as 'bad', 'junk' or foods that will make you 'fat' as this can create guilt around certain foods. It's also not recommended to use terms such as 'good' or 'clean' to describe food. Rather, it is suggested to explain to children the difference between 'everyday foods' and 'sometimes foods'. The main focus of meal times should be valuable communication, rather than comments on what your child is eating and how much.
Whilst what we say in front of children is important, it's not the only thing that they take on board. Parents' behaviour is also critical. For example, if a parent is not eating potatoes because of a 'no carb diet', a young child might interpret this as: potatoes are bad and should be avoided.
If children observe their parents regularly eating a balanced diet as well as communicating that healthy foods provide fuel for their bodies, children are more likely to follow in their parents footsteps in enjoying a variety of foods and having a healthy relationship with food. It's also important to note that a balanced diet does include sometimes foods in moderation, so try to teach your child what that looks like too.
A study conducted by La Trobe University Melbourne, on preventing body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating patterns in children, suggests that all electronic devices should be turned off during meal times, including televisions, computers and phones. This is an effective way to limit exposure to messages that could contribute to negative body image and also reduce overall distractions at mealtime.
We understand that meal times can be hectic and trying to get everyone sitting down enjoying a meal together everyday may not be possible. So we encourage parents to try to have family meals as often as they can -- it may just be one dinner a week.
The more often that families can eat together, the better this will be for your children's healthy eating patterns, which can help to protect against the development of disordered eating and negative body image.