Mealtimes shape people. They provide regulation throughout the day and are an opportunity to stop and nourish, break from the busyness, refuel, and connect (to oneself or others). Mealtime is a placeholder in daily family life and is a necessary staple for all of us, especially for our kids.
When we come together around a meal - consistently, predictably, without distraction, with ease, with others - we set the tone for safety and connection between family members and amongst food. Many of us develop maladaptive eating patterns because food regulation and safety are not a part of everyday life.
The ability to sit down and enjoy food regularly while connecting to others are both major factors in mental health stability and eliminating the development of harmful patterns with food. The power of coming together every day for at least one meal a day and sharing in conversations about the day's events, hopes/dreams, struggles, wins, etc., teaches children that there is a safe and consistent place of connection, one where people talk openly about their feelings and hear others they love do the same.
That said, mealtimes often get bypassed because they can be stressful. Many families eliminate them in their daily lives as a means of eliminating the stress, but this also eliminates the gifts they bring. Here are some tips on how to make daily mealtimes more manageable and reap all the benefits.
A lot of parents plate food for their kids at meal times, but this doesn't allow for a child to develop a capacity for what/how much they need and want with food. When food is family style - placed in the middle of the table for everyone to take what they like and want, it allows us to teach/model for our kids how to fill a balanced plate, understand their hunger and fullness, and feel safety with getting seconds/not eating more than they want if they're not hungry.
Family-style meals create a food experience about ease and sharing, trying and tasting, and comfort and openness vs "here's your plate, this is what you get ."More teaching and observing and less doing by parents will allow kids to feel safe doing it themselves.
Many parents are short-order cooks, preparing different foods to accommodate the whole family, making mealtime stressful and a lot of work. Get into the habit right when your kids are little to cook one meal that everyone eats unless there are dietary restrictions you need to abide by. Even if your kids won't eat much of that "main" meal, having little side(s) that accommodate their preferences is perfectly fine.
Having a main meal on the table for everyone to dig into and take themselves allows parents to model how and what they'd like their kids to eat. I have a rule in my home that "you don't have to like it, but you do have to try it to know," and this means that my kiddos taste things they otherwise wouldn't have for them to broaden their palate and maybe find some new winners.
When mealtimes are consistent, and everyone in the family knows that showing up is what you do, it becomes a time for togetherness that everyone will look forward to. Usually, people think of the staple family meal as dinner. But with after-school activities and working late, it may not always be possible for everyone to attend regularly.
Pay attention to the value of eating weekday breakfast together or brunch or lunch on a weekend. Remember, meal times don't have to be a big deal. There's so much value in sitting down early in the morning over a bowl of cereal to share about the day ahead or how everyone slept.
Lots of parents name terms around eating: "no dessert unless you finish your whole plate," "5 more bites or you can't....", "use your fork or you won't be allowed to...". I encourage you to experiment with dropping those terms and observe what your kids do when you say less.
Sometimes, as parents, we project our rules on kids, making eating stressful and unenjoyable, taking the meal time away from the experience and putting a microscope on the food. Try to focus on creating safety and togetherness - eating enough and adequately usually follows suit.
Talk, have fun and enjoy!
Family mealtime is all about connection, safety, love and togetherness. Having safety with food is about all those same things. Use meal times as an opportunity to have some traditions like
Talk and share. Meal times are powerful places to learn and feel close.
So there you have it! You've got mealtime regulations that everyone will want a piece of again and again.
Kyla Fox is an Eating Disorder Specialist, survivor, and advocate who reframes the ways that we think about and treat eating disorders. Kyla, herself, struggled with an eating disorder and an over-exercise addiction in her late teens.
In her quest to find help, she experienced large care gaps and fundamental flaws in the treatment and recovery approach, preventing her from getting the help that she needed.
So it became Kyla’s mission to become the therapist she would have wanted in her own recovery. Kyla is a Master’s-level clinician with degrees from both the University of Toronto in the Masters of Social Work program and an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s Studies.
In February of 2012, after 10 years of private practice, Kyla established The Kyla Fox Centre, a first-of-its-kind eating disorder recovery centre, now fully virtual since COVID. Kyla, and her multidisciplinary team, treat those directly affected by eating disorders, along with supporting families, parents, and loved ones.
The centre provides individualized care that spans the spectrum of intensive outpatient treatment all the way through to long-term maintenance. Every day, Kyla and her team are saving lives.
With such deep and varied experience in the field, Kyla is regularly called on by Canada’s top media outlets as a special commentator on a broad list of topics, including eating disorders, self-esteem, women’s health, body image, pregnancy, body confidence and more. For more information, please visit www.kylafoxcentre.com.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners