Lifestyle: At the heart of family life

A happy family having a roast dinner at table. 'PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
A happy family having a roast dinner at table. 'PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

A family sitting round a table eating dinner may seem like a fairly standard scene, but sadly, it’s one in decline.

According to new research, by Trade Furniture Company, 46% of families no longer share an evening meal together every day, and a quarter of children (26%) don’t have daily mealtime chats.

Yet the benefits for children who do sit down to eat dinner and talk with their family are considerable, affecting everything from their emotional to their physical wellbeing.

As an example, children eating with their families become more confident communicators than those who don’t. This is clearly backed by a new study of 35,000 children by the National Literacy Trust (NLT), which found that two thirds of those who talk daily with their family at meals feel confident to speak in front of a group, but less than half of those who eat in silence do. Children who don’t enjoy regular talk at mealtimes are also four times more likely to lack the confidence to put their hand up in class or to work in a team.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the NLT, says: “Mealtime chats are a really important way to get children to feel more confident. Parents are the best teachers. We know that the more language children are exposed to, the stronger their literacy skills will be over time.”

Another benefit of inclusive family meals is what children actually eat. A University of Leeds study found that children who always ate a family meal together at a table consumed 1.5 portions more fruit and vegetables on average than children who never ate with their families. Even those who ate together only once or twice a week consumed 1.2 portions more than those who never ate together.

Professor Janet Cade, who supervised the study, says: “Even if it’s just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating.

“But there are more benefits to having a family meal together than just the family’s health. They provide conversational time for families, incentives to plan a meal, and an ideal environment for parents to model good manners and behaviour.”

For maximum effect though, it’s not simply about sitting down together, you do have to remember to turn away from technology too, points out Douglas.

“If you can make the time to sit down as a family for a meal, without the TV or other electronic devices switched on, it pays massive dividends,” he stresses.

To this end, the NLT is running the Words for Life campaign to help parents give children the best foundation in communication, reading and writing skills.

“Our research shows just how vital conversation at home is to the future success of our children and young people,” says Douglas.

“Talking and communicating at home, for example at mealtimes, will help children gain the skills they need for a successful and happy life.

“We all like to talk to the people we love, and this isn’t about asking parents to be rigid teachers, it’s just about talking to their kids and making it fun.”

He suggests mealtime chats could simply start with what’s happened during the day, with parents showing an interest in what children have done at school. They may want to discuss what book a child’s reading, or tell stories or tongue twisters (for ideas, visit the Words for Life website).

Other suggestions include playing 20 Questions - where one person thinks of an object or thing and the rest of the family have 20 questions to guess what it is - or quizzes where mums and dads think of general knowledge questions for the kids to answer.

“Make the conversation interesting and engaging for the kids - something fun and positive,” advises Douglas.

Former Eastenders star Natalie Cassidy, mum to three-year-old Eliza, is supporting the NLT’s Words for Life campaign, and says: “I believe it’s incredibly important for mealtimes to not only be about the food we eat but also the conversation we have around the table.”

Cassidy says she understands that the pace of modern life means parents can get home after a busy day at work and just want to get the kids to bed, without thinking about mealtime chats.

But she urges: “Even if you’re strapped for time, make 10-15 minutes to all sit down together. Food is fuel for our bodies. So is conversation for our brains.”

:: For more information, visit www.wordsforlife.org.uk