Sharing time at the table

AS holiday time eases the pressure on family routines, experts recommend taking the time to plan more family meals.

A new study says that eating a meal together generates a range of benefits for parents and children.

The study, compiled by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, found that children who ate with their family tended to eat more fruit, vegetables, fibre, calcium-rich foods and vitamins, and less junk food.

And it’s not just about nutrition. Teens who ate with the family showed fewer signs of depression and reported that their family was more supportive than those who ate at home less often. This finding echoes an earlier report from the UK government’s long-running study, Understanding Society. This found that children who eat an evening meal with their family at least three times a week are more likely to report being completely happy with their family situation than children who never eat with their family, or who eat together less than three times a week.

Limerick mum Sheila Killian says that a daily dinner is an important part of her home life. “We turn off the radio, get all the food on the table and basically talk about everything and anything. Sometimes it’s school or work stuff, or plans we have for the next few days.”

Every month or so, scheduling pressures sideline the family meal. “When that happens, the day doesn’t feel complete… It must be very hard for people with shift work or long late commutes.”

Research confirms that modern work routines are having a significant negative impact on the traditional family meal. A Bord Bia study found that only 36% of households with children always eat together as a family. One in 10 do so rarely or never. Moreover, dinner has drifted away from the dining table. A third of evening meals are now eaten round the TV, a figure that jumps to more than 50% if the meal is pizza.

Owen Connelly, a Dublin-based counsellor and family therapist, agrees that the simple ritual of taking an evening meal together can help keep the lines of communication open within families. He says, however, that it’s important that communication flows both ways. This isn’t just another opportunity to tell the kids what to do.

“Sitting down at the table might not be appropriate in every household, but what you could do is have what’s called a family evening. Introduce it very early on, where it’s no TV, no technology, but just games that you play together. It doesn’t have to involve food, but it involves you getting down and engaging the child in their play or their activities other than technology. When it’s put into place and if it’s started off very early, children will look back at that as a very special time.”

Irene Gunning, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, also sees the value in the family meal. “Sitting down together and having a meal is one of those really important rituals. That’s when you get a chance to be in relationship, to talk, be listened to, be valued. There’s bonding, there’s connection, there’s attention given.”

Chef Sheila Kiely knows the importance of eating as a family. This year she penned a book of family friendly meals, Gimme The Recipe, with busy mums in mind — but no matter how chaotic it is at home, the family eats together.

“With six kids between 10 and 15, meal times are noisy and chaotic but they are important to us. The TV is off, it’s just us, and it’s our time together as a family,” she says.

Tipperary businessman George Mordaunt is author of Shepherd’s Pie, a memoir of his struggle to keep his business from falling apart as the recession hit. As a father of two children, he says that during the worst of times, he may have been present at family meals, but it was in body only.

“I remember putting a smile on my face as if I was intently listening to what my 11-year-old son was saying, or what my 15-year-old daughter was saying, but I wasn’t. I look back on those times over the last two or three years, and I was missing from the meal table because I was trying to keep things on the road.”

Proving just how important the ritual remains, however, it was at the dinner table that Mordaunt finally broke to his family just how serious his financial problems had become. “I explained to my kids that I was closing two of my businesses. It was over dinner that I explained to them that there may be a reaction from other kids in the schoolyard. This is what people might say to you. This is how you should react.”

As Mordaunt began restoring his finances, he also made significant changes to his family life. He’s started coaching a local soccer team, and despite the ongoing pressures of keeping business turning over, he makes sure to get home for dinner at least twice a week. Keeping the technology at bay is key to preserving the ritual. “If you take phones out of their hands, switch off the TV and say ‘let’s talk’, the conversation flows and you learn things from your kids, and you hear things that you’d never normally hear. Once you open that door the conversation flows out. There’s a huge benefit.”

Irene Gunning believes the recession has in some ways helped restore stability to family life. “We lost the run of ourselves, buying takeaways, or just living life very differently. I constantly hear people going back to things like making food together. Even the anticipation of the meal becomes more important because you’ve actually made it together. There’s more involvement and a deeper investment in the meal.”


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