Family Mealtime: Routines and Rituals

HYG-5249
Family and Consumer Sciences
Date: 
11/12/2019
Joanna Fifner, former Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences
Michelle Treber, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Pickaway County

Are there any routines in your life that make you feel happy, more aware, and balanced? For some, it may be activities such as yoga, or simply enjoying tea and reading the paper in the morning. For others, it might be time on the weekend with friends to regroup from a long week.A family around a table with a meal on the table, salad and drinks.

What if there was a routine or ritual that could benefit the entire family that, with a few simple steps, could be introduced into your family's daily life? Family mealtime provides an opportunity to gather together and enjoy a meal. Consider having at least one meal as a family each day.

A regular family meal can provide each family member a variety of benefits, one of which is the sense of routine it can offer. Children, in particular, benefit from having routines. Some of the benefits of routines include better sleeping habits, better eating habits, and a sense of security from knowing just what to expect. The act of having a daily family meal that includes positive family interactions a child can count on and look forward to is a great way to experience these benefits.

Routines

While having a daily family meal is a routine itself, your family may choose to establish routines within the meal. Consider incorporating these ideas [CS1]into your family mealtime to establish routines:

  • Use themed meals for days of the week, such as Mexican Mondays or Stir-Fry Saturdays.
  • Make the meal preparation and clean up tasks fun and consistent. Listen to music, play games during preparation or clean up time.
  • Delegate chores to each family member, such as setting the table, pouring glasses of water, clearing the table, or washing dishes. These tasks can become that family member’s “job” and they can plan to have that responsibility at each family meal.And extended family with grandparents enjoy a meal with their grandchild and her parents.

Rituals

A ritual is similar to a routine in that it is a consistent activity—or set of activities—done in a prescribed order. Rituals, however, are slightly different from routines in that they often carry a deeper meaning, perhaps spiritual, religious, or rooted in tradition. For family meals, rituals might include:

  • Saying grace or a prayer before eating a meal.
  • Sharing a quiet moment of gratitude for the food and the family before or after the meal.
  • Facilitating a consistent discussion at each family meal, such as “rose and thorn,” where each family member shares the best and most challenging part of their days.
  • Facilitating an interesting conversation at each family meal. See the next section for conversation starter ideas and resources.

Research shows that incorporating rituals can help people feel more deeply involved in their experience, which heightens the perceived value of the experience. In other words, rituals can help each family member see value in—and appreciate—coming together for a meal. Furthermore, rituals have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety.

Making Family Meals Happen

Many families struggle to have meals together regularly for a variety of reasons. Some common barriers include lack of meal planning and cooking skills, picky eaters, and busy schedules. Consider these tips for successfully creating a family mealtime routine that is positive and beneficial to family members, especially children.

  • Plan meals ahead of time. Explore easy-to-fix healthy recipes that your family can enjoy. Prepare foods in larger quantities to expand into multiple meals.
  • Involve all family members in planning, shopping, preparing, or cleaning up. This will make the workload more manageable and will encourage family engagement.
  • Find recipes your family enjoys. If you have a picky eater, encourage them to taste and try new foods.
  • Think about your time constraints. Look at your schedules and plan time to eat together as a family. Consider planning meals ahead of time to enjoy on your busiest days.A family of three enjoys a picnic in a park.
  • Don’t allow devices (such as television, cell phones, or tablets) during your family mealtime. Taking a break from your screens may foster more meaningful conversations and engagement between family members.
  • Enhance your rituals by making some occasions extra special, such as making your family meal a picnic on Sundays in the summer.
  • Choose the mealtime that works best. Would it work for your family to have breakfast or lunch as the family meal?  
  • If you cannot enjoy a family mealtime every day, set a goal of three or four times a week. Aim for consistency with days of the week, so that everyone can plan and look forward to spending time together.
  • Use family mealtime conversation cards to spark interesting discussions around the table. Children or parents can come up with topics and write them on index cards for selection at family meals. (Example: What superpower would you choose if you could have any?)
  • Incorporate word games for fun at mealtime (Example: One person thinks of two rhyming words like “Funny Bunny,” and then gives a clue such as “hilarious furry mammal.” See who can guess the rhyme.)    

References

Argosy University (2018). The Psychology and Science of Tradition & Ritual. Retrieved from argosy.edu/our-community/blog/the-psychology-and-science-of-traditions-rituals.        

Berchelmann Kathleen. MD, FAAP, (2015) The Benefits & Tricks to Having a Family Dinner. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/Pages/Mealtime-as-Family-Time.aspx

The Family Dinner Project. Conversation Starters. Retrieved from thefamilydinnerproject.org/conversation/conversation-starters

Fruh, S. M., Mulekar, M. S., Hall, H. R., Fulkerson, J. A., Hanks, R. S., Lemley, T., … Dierking, J. (2013). Perspectives of Community Health Advocates: Barriers to Healthy Family Eating Patterns. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners: JNP, 9(7), 416–421. doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2013.04.010

Grant, Heidi (2013). New Research: Rituals Make Us Value Things More. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from hbr.org/2013/12/new-research-rituals-make-us-value-things-more

Plan Your Weekly Meals. Retrieved from choosemyplate.gov/budget-weekly-meals 

Rogers, Joanna. (2018). Benefits of a Family Dinner. North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from robeson.ces.ncsu.edu/2018/05/benefits-of-a-family-dinner     

What’s Cooking, USDA Mixing Bowl. Retrieved from whatscooking.fns.usda.gov