Food is a powerful force across cultures, countries and groups. Prized recipes are handed down through the generations. Mealtime rituals become family traditions. Even the dishes we use to cook and serve meals can hold special meaning.
Today, dinner is probably the biggest meal in many New Zealand households. It may be one of the few times during the day when families are all together. It might be a time for parents to show they care, by providing their children with a homecooked meal. It may even be a time for learning and bonding as a family.
In fact, family dinners could be one of the most important rituals we take part in. More than anything else, sharing a meal with loved ones could give Kiwi kids a head start as they navigate the world around them.
The history of the family dinner
Dinner wasn’t always our main meal of the day. In traditional Maori communities, large meals were eaten twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening.1 Meals were served in an area of the marae set aside especially for eating. They were very much a group activity, shared by extended family, friends and others in the community.
The arrival of European settlers began to change when and how Kiwis eat.1 Three main meals, plus a morning and afternoon tea, became the norm. For much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, lunch was the biggest meal of the day. However, as cities grew and people started commuting further to work and school, dinner became more important.
Table manners were also imported from Europe, especially during the Victorian Era. Dining together as a family became an essential part of home life for many people.2 Parents used mealtimes to connect as a family, even educating their children in everything from table manners and conversation to religion and politics over dinner.
Family dinner in New Zealand has continued to evolve. Television shifted mealtimes to the living room in many households. No stats are available for the number of Kiwis who do this, but 60 per cent of Aussies say they eat in front of the TV always or often.3 The internet now means that families may be even more distracted while they eat. Smartphones, tablets and laptops make it possible to use the internet at the dinner table. Kiwis are also dining out more, with people in cities going to restaurants or getting takeaway almost four times each week.4
The importance of eating together
Eating together as a family is still an important part of many people’s day. However, you may not realise how important a simple meal together could be. Dinner can be about more than providing nutrition and fuel to those we love. In fact, it may help strengthen family relationships, and could boast a few other great benefits:
- Eating together helps kids develop motor and language skills. Learning to use cutlery can help little ones practice their fine motor skills, but dinner conversation may be even more important. One study found that kids learn more rare words (an important measure of literacy) at the dinner table than they do when they are read to!5
- Family dinners may help promote healthy eating habits. A study discovered that older children and teens who regularly had dinner with their families ate more fruits and vegetables than those who did not.6 They also tended to have less fried food and soft drink each week. (Interestingly, kids who eat in front of the TV don’t seem to have the same results.)7
- Sharing a family meal might lead to better school performance. Several studies link family dinners to higher grades and less truancy amongst adolescents and teens.8 In fact, shared mealtimes predicted a child’s academic success better than things like time spent doing homework or playing sport!7
- Dinners together may help teens feel better about themselves. Adolescents and teens who regularly eat dinner with their parents may have higher self-esteem and be less likely to feel depressed. They may also be less likely to engage in risky behaviour, such as using drugs or abusing alcohol.9
Making time for family meals
Your children may benefit from all the positives of family dinners, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to plan them! Work, sport, homework and our social lives often make it tough for everyone to eat together. Younger children may need to eat early, teens might grab a bite on their way out the door, and mum and dad may not sit down until their meal is cold!
Making family dinner a priority may mean a little bit of work. It may be necessary to plan ahead, putting it into everyone’s diaries. You might even make a point of rescheduling other obligations to fit in more family time. This could help show your kids that you value this family time, and that it’s something important that you all share.
When you do manage to get everyone to the table, try to make the most of the experience! Eliminate distractions by banning phones, tablets, gaming consoles, laptops, television… really anything that could become a substitute for conversation.
No matter when or what your family eats, shared dinners could be an important part of bringing everyone together!
Dealing with a picky eater? You might also enjoy “5 Foods to avoid packing in your child’s lunchbox.”
1. Eating, Te Ara—Encyclopedia of New Zealand
2. ‘No place for discontent’: A history of the family dinner in America, NPR
3. Bite-size view of a nation, Sydney Morning Herald
4. Why New Zealanders are dining out more than ever before, NZ Herald
5. What kids learn during dinner, Greater Good Magazine
6. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents, Archives of Family Medicine
7. The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them, The Washington Post
8. How American children spend their time, Journal of Marriage and Family
9. Family meals and the well-being of adolescents, Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health