Busy schedules, differing appetites, and a range of ages can make it difficult to coordinate family meals. Add an infant or toddler in the mix and things can become messier. But the benefits of eating together at family mealtimes, far outweigh the logistical struggles.
Sitting down for family meals has loads of benefits for your growing little one—and everyone else in your household too! Let’s explore the benefits of eating together—which are both cumulative and lifelong.
The Health Benefits of Family Meals
Sitting around the table and sharing a family meal is the perfect time to start modeling and fostering healthy eating habits to last a lifetime:
- Boosted nutrition. Studies show that the practice of eating family meals is related to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, and intake of nutrient-dense foods and balanced diets.
- Reduced likelihood of obesity in childhood and beyond. Research also shows that family meals during adolescents may have a long term benefit by protecting against obesity in young adulthood.
- Social Benefits. Studies also suggest family meals can be away to model healthy social behavior, strengthen communication and interpersonal relationships as well as provide structure and routine.
The Social & Emotional Benefits of Family Meals
The benefits of eating family meals together don’t stop at nutrition—social and emotional benefits of eating together include:
- Boosted language acquisition and literacy. Conversation around the dining table is a great time for caregivers and other household members to talk with (or to) infants and toddlers, whether it’s used as an opportunity to teach littles food names or to encourage building conversational skills.
- Better sense of structure and routine. Everyone thrives with more routine to plan their day around; family meals with your little loves can increase their sense of stability and well-being. Structure and routine may also reduce picky eating.
- Increased self-esteem and sense of belonging. Having time to check in and connect with family members, provides an opportunity to strengthen familial relationships.
- More opportunities to learn and teach about food. Eating with kids can be an opportunity to help children learn about different foods and for families to try new foods together. Families can also introduce foods that are important to the family’s cultural roots. Involving children in meal prep can help them learn invaluable skills for when they’re on their own and need to know how to shop, cook, and make nutritious choices.
Other ongoing benefits. When family members spend time together and talk regularly, it’s easier for caregivers to recognize any changes that may be happening with kids’ moods.
When & How To Add Kids to Family Meals
Deciding when to start incorporating babies and toddlers into family meals can be tricky—how soon is too soon? Some tried-and-true tips for getting started include:
- Start slow and small. Family meals don’t have to be long, elaborate, or daily—try starting with simple meals and increasing the number of meals you’re eating together by one each week.
- Share the planning and prep. Get everyone involved at their level of ability. Your littles will love sharing in shopping duties and helping with prep around the kitchen, and older family members will be more invested in eating together if they contribute to getting meals on the table.
- Pull up the highchair and bring on the booster seat. Until your tiny can sit on their bottom on a dining chair or are big enough for a booster seat, don’t let a highchair hold anyone back from joining the family meal at the table. Eventually your little love will show signs that they want to sit at the table, too—in a big-kid chair. If they’re not yet tall enough, a booster seat is the perfect transitional tool for keeping everyone included.
- Try to reduce distractions. Let mealtime be mealtime—turn off the TV, mute the mobile devices, and put away the toys. Focus on each other and what’s on the menu. Have a designated area for mealtime such as the kitchen table to reduce distractions.
Letting your little one go at their own pace while encouraging eating together is important, but be on the lookout for moments when they might move too fast, for example keep curious hands (and mouths) away from solids and certain foods on neighboring plates that may be choking hazards for them.