It’s so easy and convenient to plonk your child down in front of the TV with his fish fingers, and any mother who tells you she’s never resorted to this after a long hard afternoon is not to be believed. But eating round the table at least a few times a week offers so many wonderful benefits to children and to the family as a whole, and experts believe you’ll be doing your little ones a real favour by creating a tradition of shared meals.

Why family meals are important

  • Research has shown that enjoying family meals together at least five times a week is hugely beneficial. ‘Sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members’, writes Dr. Anne K. Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project. ‘Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem.’

  • Communal meals are important because they are essentially rituals, and research has also shown that rituals increase family stability, benefit children’s health and learning, and strengthen interpersonal relationships, among many other advantages.

  • Although it’s not practical or sometimes even possible for everyone to eat together every night (especially if you all have different schedules), it’s well worth making a real effort to dine together as often as you can, even if it’s only over weekends. Think of a family meal as a quiet pause in a frantic day – the still eye of the hurricane of family life, if you like.

Tips for happy family meals

  • Start early – as soon as your child is old enough to sit at the table. It’s difficult to convince an eight-year-old child who has always eaten in front of the TV to peel himself away from the screen and come to the table, but if your child has grown up accepting regular communal meals as the norm, you’ve already won most of the battle.

  • Family time around the table is a golden opportunity to teach good manners. And manners are important, because your children will be judged on them when they become teenagers and adults. Make sure that everyone understands what is and is not acceptable at table.

  • However, this is not the time or place for disciplining children – it’s vital to keep these issues for another occasion so your kids don’t begin to associate food and eating with negative emotions. The idea is to create a happy, positive atmosphere that encourages communication, sharing and fun. If a child misbehaves at table, quietly ask him to leave the room. He’ll soon settle down and mend his ways when he realises how much fun he’s missing out on.

  • Meal times are also a great way of instilling conversational skills in kids. Recent research has shown that dinnertime conversation boosts the vocabulary of children even more than being read aloud to. Encourage young children to talk about the high and low points in their day, and respond by telling them about your experiences. Older children can be persuaded to sharpen their debating skills at the table: ask them what they think about a particular issue, and then take the lead by showing them how to argue a viewpoint logically and politely.

  • Create treasured family traditions. For example, you could ask your children to pick a theme for a dinner – Meat-Free Mondays, perhaps, or Take-Out Tuesdays. Let them help lay and decorate the table, or choose the menu, so they feel part of these traditions.

  • If interest in family meals starts to fade, or you’re dealing with adolescents who are more interested in their phones than in conversation, throw in a surprise. Have a moonlight picnic on the lawn, create a ‘burger bar’ in the kitchen, or organise a cake-and-cocoa party just before everyone goes to bed. Meals don’t have to be eaten around the table – all that matters is that everyone is together.