It’s easy to push aside family dinners as non-essential when life is busy and you’re shuttling kids from place to place. But the family meal can play an important role in all of your lives. Not only do they give you time together to develop relationships, they can impact your child’s relationship to their body and food.
Research shows that adolescents who eat family dinner some or most days were less likely to develop disordered eating habits, purge, binge, or diet restrictively.
Family meals are beneficial because they:
- Create a safe environment free of judgment or pressure
- Allow you to teach your child to listen to their body.
- Give you a chance to become their role model around eating and food.
Let’s dive into the steps to take to experience the benefits of family meals.
How to create a safe environment
A child who struggles with their body image may view food as unsafe, scary and/or something to restrict. Family meals create a space to frame food differently. A lot of the reframing can happen by simply changing your language. Here are some examples:
|Instead of relating food to…||Frame it as a way to…|
|Calories||Nourish and fuel the body|
|Weight gain||Grow and develop|
|Impact physical appearance||Give you the ability to do the things you enjoy like playing sports|
Another big point to remember is that food is often labeled as “good” or “bad.” Modeling the idea that all food has value, and avoiding labels like good, bad and junk – can set a less judgmental tone.
Family meals also offer a natural pause in the day and your undivided attention. It should be a tech-free zone for each member of the family. This is important because it can be difficult for your child to bring up deep feelings when you’re busy or when anyone is distracted by a device. Mealtime can create space for your child to share any of their struggles with food or other areas of concern. This environment also allows you to ask questions, give support, and check in with your child along the way.
How to teach your child to listen to their body
Our fast-paced culture can prevent us from listening to our bodies. This may make it difficult to know when, how much, and what to eat. A child who struggles with disordered eating may already feel detached from their body. This makes it even harder to establish a healthy relationship with food.
Family meals give you the opportunity to help your child pay attention to feelings of hunger and fullness. Meals should be a no-pressure zone where they feel free to eat as much or as little as they want. They should also feel comfortable to eat food in any order they wish, for example they don’t need to eat vegetables first or get a dessert reward for clearing their plate. Meals that are served family-style allow your child a little bit more control over this process. Learning about hunger cues not only gives them agency over their own body, but it also provides them with tools to be more independent. Other benefits of your child learning how to listen to their bodies include:
- Knowing when it’s time to eat
- Knowing when it’s time to stop eating
- Learning what they like or dislike
- Slowing down
How to be your child’s role model
You have more influence over your child’s relationship with food than you think. Even seemingly subtle remarks and/or behaviors could make a big difference.
The first step to being a good role model for your child is embodying the beliefs yourself. To start, you can answer these questions for yourself:
- Do you think about food in the context of calories, weight gain, and/or physical appearance?
- Is food often a reward or something you have to earn by exercising?
- How can you reframe food as nourishing, refueling, and strengthening?
- What might you need to slow down and listen to your body?
Gaining clarity around your own relationship with food can allow you to teach your child to do the same. Remember, your child likely looks to you for guidance. You’re empowered to help them strengthen their relationship with food, starting with family meals.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
- How to talk about weight-inclusive care with your pediatrician
- When is time for your child to talk to a therapist about disordered eating?
- Delicious dinners for the whole family
- How your beliefs about food impact your parenting
- Food for the holidays: A winning approach
- “Bulimia nervosa.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic Staff. May 10, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bulimia/symptoms-causes/syc-20353615
- Haines, J. “Family dinner and disordered eating.” National Library of Medicine. 18 (1): 10-24. Web. Jan 1 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2856109/