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Family meals: Reflections on research & recommendations

Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Melissa Baker, MHSc and RD. Thank you for submitting!

Reconnect food and fun! Family meals: a meaningful change on your client’s 100 Meal Journey.
Research has shown that up to one-third of families seldom eat together. Considering the clear link between eating together and the significant health and social benefits for children, adolescents and older people, this is a concerning statistic.
With this in mind, the BC Dairy Association, in partnership with the BC Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport, commenced a project to encourage family meals in British Columbia. Our research drew on insight from over 200,000 meal memories.
Understanding the Family Meal
In order to properly understand and encourage family meals, there is a need to move beyond facts and figures and explore the feelings and emotions of families. This is not to down-play the value of facts, or to disregard the volume of pre-existing research on this topic.
These existing facts have built an impressive foundation of knowledge and have clearly established the link between eating meals together and a multitude of significant health, mental and social benefits.
However, what the facts have missed and often failed to explain are the feelings and emotions that underlie actions and drive family behaviour.
·         Why do families and friends gather together at barbeques?
·         How does it feel to bake with a grandparent?
·         What happens when you have children who are picky eaters?
These questions are at the heart of family meals and hold the key to understanding and encouraging families to eat together, because meals are much more than just food and function, facts and figures. Meals are about culture and tradition. Meals are about love and harmony. Meals are about friendship and fun. And most importantly, meals are about family.
The Link Between Meals and Emotions
From a very young age, meals and emotions are linked together in our minds and our lives. In fact, for most people, their first meals bring together nutrition and emotion as one inseparable process between baby and mother. Through our research, we have found that many family meals can act as a re-creation of this first meal, bringing family members together and providing them with an opportunity to share meals and emotions:
“The first thing when you go home is you have a home cooked meal. You feel great, you have a hug and you feel great. It naturally equates to love…It’s not often you equate food with hate.” - Father
For example, meals are often used as a way to pass on the traditions of culture and religion through symbolic objects and actions. Meals can also provide a way to keep intergenerational memories alive:
“Food is a link to the people we care about. Growing up we always got this one sort of cookie from our grandmother. That cookie helps us remember her; it reminds us of those times.” - Mother
These meal examples illustrate the important link that exists between meals and emotions. They also highlight the fundamental importance of encouraging and supporting family meals. Beyond their functional purpose, or nutritional value, our research has shown that family meals play a pivotal role in maintaining culture, memories, religion, bonds, and love.
The Shifting Family Dynamic
Recently, families have experienced some rapid changes in eating patterns and family dynamics. Through our research, we’ve found some fragmentation of bonded family units into units of individuals with individual demands. As a result, family meals are often being de-prioritized in favour of individual entertainment, sporting, work, and educational demands.
This shift is placing enormous pressure on families, who are often struggling to maintain harmony amongst their unit of individuals:
“My life is absolutely a fiasco; you don’t know what to do first. Work, play with your children, provide everything perfectly like a super mum. And these days, people are judging [you] so much.”- Mother
This shift is also reflected in the eating patterns of many families, with meals becoming subservient to individual demands:
 “I’m not a cook, so I need food that is fast and immediate…My son loves chicken Cordon Bleu, but there’s no way you’d catch me making it!...It takes so much time out of my schedule and then it’s gone in 10 minutes. If I spend time on something I want it to last.” - Mother
Additionally, many families are choosing to avoid meals altogether, instead preferring to snack, or eat fast, pre-prepared food:
“My son is a very picky eater; if it’s something new he complains. Being a mum and dealing with all his emotional issues, I don’t want to deal with meal issues. I’d just rather cut up snacks, munch them, and play computer games.” – Mother

These examples illustrate a shift that has been occurring in family eating behaviour and dynamics. They also highlight the tension, pressure, and guilt that this shift is causing many parents. Confronted by unrealistic demands, limited skills, and restricted time, our research has built our understanding of why many families eat fewer meals together.
Reconnecting Food and Fun
Family meals may generate emotion, but they also require time and effort. When making a meal starts to feel like a chore, a distraction from pleasure or quality time, food and fun can often become disconnected.
We’ve uncovered an important link between families re-creating in the kitchen and their likelihood of eating meals together. Re-creating involves having fun with food (recreation), but also involves preparing meals together (re-creating).

For example, instead of being treated as a showcase for the exclusive use of adults, kitchens need to become family spaces where food and fun can mix together:
“Cheese, sauces, dough: it’s like a fantasy for kids. They get to make their imagination.” - Father
The process of mixing food and fun creates positive meal associations, which in turn encourages families to continue repeating the process:
“My grandmother was more the pastries, we’d spend hours back then rolling out the dough. That was fun, they were nummies. It’s the smells, when you’re cooking a pie or cookies, the smells of anticipation make it fun.” - Mother

Just like sport, family cooking can also help teach children valuable skills like teamwork and responsibility:
“The child feels independent and it’s kind of a milestone… They think: ‘OK, if I can do this, if I can just mix this, then I can do that to.’ It’s baby steps towards bigger things” – Mother
These examples illustrate the importance of reconnecting food and fun, and how cooking together is an important precursor to eating together. Our research has shown how being involved in preparation provides a means for children to bond with their meal (overcoming issues like picky eating) and helps encourage families to eat together as a team.
Implications for encouraging the Family Meal
Beyond understanding family meal behaviour, our research has also provided clear direction for initiatives and messages that aim to encourage family meals. This can be summarized in four key insights:
  1. When it comes to meals, guilt paralyzes parents. Focusing on the words like eating together or family meals can create guilt and cause parents to shut down, deny, and even ignore communication.
  2. The process of encouraging family meals starts by encouraging families to re-create together in the kitchen. When food is fun and preparation is pleasurable, meals tend to be shared and eaten together.
  3. Children may be better custodians of the family meal than parents. By helping them connect food with fun, we can create powerful internal advocates for the family meal.
  4. Finally, changing meal behaviour involves taking baby steps towards bigger things. Making pizza together on a Friday night, or mixing together a salad may seem like small steps, but those small steps generate positive emotions and memories that can contribute to long-term behaviour change.
Better Together is launching their 7th annual Hands-On Cook-Off contest on April 20, 2016. This initiative helps families re-create together in the kitchen, by reconnecting food and fun! Use the four insights above as a framework for doing the same in your practice.
As you are speaking with your clients about family meals, consider using the Better Together contest video submissions  as teaching tools and to inspire your clients to get into the kitchen with their families. To learn more, read the reports generated from our research here.   Happy cooking!
Melissa Baker, MHSc, is a registered dietitian who uses her passion for nutrition, food and cooking to inspire, create, share and improve the health and wellness of others. Melissa is also a blogger and media dietitian.


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