• Sarah Griffith

Four tips to make family meals happen

Perhaps you’ve been convinced by the advantages of sitting down to eat with your children, and want to do it more often. Or maybe, like other families during lockdown, you were eating together more as a family then, but find you’re struggling to keep those family meals going now. If so, this third and final post in my series on family meals is here to help. It draws on a combination of behavioural research and my experience of supporting families who struggle with mealtimes, to bring you four tips designed to help you make family meals happen.

1. Re-think your commitments

A lot of the time our lives are so jam packed that we simply can’t seem to find time to eat together. If that’s something you want to change, then taking a look at commitments that clash with mealtimes is a good starting point.

Of course, there are always going to be trade-offs: saying ‘yes’ to one thing inevitably means saying ‘no’ to something else (even if we don’t realise it at the time). The best we can do is to try and make those trade-offs wisely, so that, in so far as they can, they support our values and wider aims in life.

By deciding what you value about family meals and what benefits you’re hoping to get from them, you can make a more informed decision about whether other activities are worth prioritising over and above them (see my post about the advantages of family meals for more on that). Everyone’s trade-offs will be different – it’s up to you to work out what’s right for you and your family.

2. Make a realistic plan for food shopping and menus

This can be the behind-the-scenes work that lets the magic happen. And it can help you cut down on decision-fatigue and feel more in control – particularly useful if you’re already feeling overwhelmed (something that many of us are especially prone to at dinner time!).

The extent of your planning will depend on you. If you’re a confident cook and an efficient food shopper, you’ll probably find that you instinctively adjust what you do to accommodate any changes in food purchasing once you’ve decided to sit down to more family meals.

But if you’re not so confident in the kitchen, or you find you’re often over-buying or under-buying food, then if you can bring yourself to make a meal plan for the week, you might be amazed at what a game-changer this can be.

It doesn’t have to take great skill and a lot of expensive resources to plan and cook basic family meals. There are loads of online recipes and videos available – pick some you like and practice until you have enough under your belt for the week. There are also a lot of cookery books marketed on the speed of meal preparation – again, have a browse and choose some you like that fit with the time you have available (but give yourself some leeway at first because it will probably take you longer than advertised, at least the first few times).

Just a word of caution about meal planning: remember to keep the bigger picture in mind. What’s really motivating you to make more family meals? Improving your children’s relationship with food? Improving the quality time you spend together as a family? Whatever it is, this can help you turn down the pressure – after all, for most of us, it’s unlikely to be about preparing ourselves for a forthcoming appearance on MasterChef!

3. Delegate and work together

If you already share out the shopping, cooking and clearing away responsibilities in your house, then you’ll appreciate what a difference this can make. But very often there’s just one parent who takes this on by themselves (and statistically speaking, that’s still usually us mums). Day in, day out, this can become a monotonous and energy-sapping undertaking leaving your battery drained and your enthusiasm for family mealtimes low.

So it’s a good idea to take help from wherever you can. And it’s always worth being on your guard for anything you might inadvertently do to sabotage others’ support. For example, if you’re used to being in control in the kitchen, it might be hard to take a step back and give others a chance to have a go. However, there are likely to be far bigger prizes to keep your eyes on than the outcomes for a particular meal. For instance, if your children are the ones helping, then you’re enabling and empowering them to learn valuable life skills and also role modelling how to create a shared endeavour where cooperation is expected and valued. And rather more selfishly, one day you might wake-up to find you live with a wonderful team of people (aka your family), who can make family meals without you having to go anywhere near the kitchen!

Again, by keeping this big picture in mind and by training yourself to focus on the things others are doing well - and giving descriptive praise for those things - you can help keep family meal prep positive.

4. Cook smarter not harder

I’m talking specifically about batch cooking here.

You can approach this in a couple of ways. You could make batches of one particular meal, like a soup or a pasta sauce, to freeze for whenever you need it. Or you could cook particular ingredients to be turned into a variety of different meals over the next few days. For example, roasting a load of vegetables one day that can be added to anything from curries, to pasta, to salads. This is a great way to avoid boredom, because you can flavour each dish differently and add different protein ingredients (like chickpeas, lentils, fish or meat) and different carb accompaniments (like rice, pasta, potato, couscous). It’s also excellent for avoiding food waste – if you cook all those veggies as soon as you buy them, you’re less likely to find them shrivelled and past their best at the back of the fridge.

At the end of a hard day, whipping out a pre-made meal or throwing together a bunch of pre-prepped ingredients can give your brain’s reward systems a nice little boost. When this happens, remember to take a minute to savour that feeling and bask in the warm glow of your own amazing efficiency. This kind of reinforcement for a job well done helps set up virtuous circles in our brain that strengthen our capacity for positive thoughts and feelings (expect to see more about neuroplasticity here soon).

So where to start?

If you think you’d like to make some of the changes discussed in this article, but don’t know where to start, here are a few useful questions you can ask yourself to set the ball rolling:

  • What are the positives about my family meals that I can build on?

  • Are there any small changes, or small daily habits I can put in place that will get me nearer to my aspirations? (The more specific and realistic you can be about these the better - so stating the exact thing you will do and the time you will do it).

  • What resources and support can I draw on in making the changes I want?

Where to go if you need more help?

Although I’ve designed these tips to be widely applicable, I appreciate that they won’t be able to help everyone. If family meals are an unhappy experience for you, and the prospect of having more of them fills you with dread, one-on-one support from a family health coach may be able to help you overcome mealtime challenges and turn them into a more enjoyable and positive part of your family life. Please get in touch with Sarah to book a free initial consultation if you’d like to find out more.

Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. If you would like to speak to her about how she might be able to support you with any difficulties you are experiencing with feeding your children, whatever their age, please get in touch.