Due to various reasons, such as television programmes being slavishly followed, less family members than before join each other at the table for a meal.
Is it worth the effort to get them away from their tablets, cellphones and televisions for a meal at the table?
“Definitely,” says Angie Vorster, a clinical psychologist at the School of Clinical Medicine at the University of the Free State (UFS). “One loses one of the best opportunities to create a family routine when everyone eats on their own.”
When family members join each other at the table for a meal, it signals the message that they have time for each other, which is equally important for a preschool child or a teenager.
Being together forms a unique family culture and it serves to do more than learning table manners and healthy eating habits, Vorster says.
Dr Dorothy Russell (PhD Occupational Therapy) at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the UFS, has been working with parents and child development for the past 33 years. She says children flourish on routine and meals at the table offer security and stability.
“Having a meal at the table links the family together and provides a feeling of collectivity. When a family do not eat at the table, it breaks the feeling of belonging.”
Learn to talk and learn to listen
“The table must be a no-screen zone,” says Vorster. “Use this time to relax, to look each other in the eye and to listen to each other.”
Such an atmosphere encourages children to talk about events at school which they normally would not discuss. Parents get the chance to share their daily experiences.
Children who regularly eat at the table as part of a family, tend to have a better vocabulary, as they hear new words and learn how to use these.
When there is no distraction such as a television screen, people listen better and ask questions, which leads to more conversation.
Social skills are learned indirectly. An example of this is when parents act as rolemodels for empathy when one talks about an experience and the other expresses sympathy or joy.
Teenagers who grow up in families who gather at the table for a meal daily, show lower levels of depressive symptoms than teenagers in families where it does not happen, says Vorster.
It must also be a place of stories and jokes, Vorster says. Here parents can talk about their own mistakes, children learn how it is handled, and parents see their children grow and change.
Furthermore, young children learn to eat “grown-up food”.
Each in their own corner
The alternative is usually eating in front of the television or a computer screen.
“The isolation this causes is the primary objection,” Vorster says.
There are also physical concerns about eating this way. Vorster says studies show people eat more unhealthy food and body posture and table manners are neglected.
Turning a meal into an occasion
, Explain the importance of eating together and try it for at least three meals a week.
, Take turns in doing the table decorations and preparing food.
, Get everyone involved in finding recipes, to try out new dishes.
, Play music softly in the background.
, Make sure that everyone gets a turn to talk and that no-one dominates the conversation.
, Think of questions to ask to get the quiet ones to talk.
, Tell the children about their family history and stories of the old days. Through this children learn that their ancestors experienced prosperous, as well as rough, times – and that it is part of life.
, Make a team effort of clearing the table and washing the dishes.
– Angie Vorster
Advantages of eating at the table
, Language skills and general knowledge develop through informal conversation.
, Studies have shown that symptoms of depression, and probably also the later use of drugs, among teenagers are reduced when eating at the table.
, When families eat together at the table five to seven times a week, children do better in school and their concentration levels are better.
, A natural bond develops between parents and children.
, Good manners develop, which is an advantage in a classroom situation.
, The use of utensils stimulates hand-eye coordination.
, The bodymass index of children is lower.
, Home-cooked meals, which normally is a healthier option, save money.
– Dr Dorothy Russell
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