Family meals: The role of psychologists

By Kathleen M. Cuneo, Ph.D.
March 1, 2009



Family meals have been consistently demonstrated to be a robust protective factor for a number of health and mental health variables. Children and adolescents who eat meals regularly with their families have been shown to have better nutrition (Gillman et al., 2000), lower risk for depression and suicide (Eisenberg, et al., 2004), lower risk for disordered eating (Neumark-Sztainer, et al., 2008) and lower risk for substance abuse (CASA, 2007).

Despite these findings, many families do not have meals together on a consistent basis. Today’s families face many obstacles to organizing family meals. Many child-related activities such as sports, music lessons, dance classes and martial arts programs frequently occur around the dinner hour. Many parents work long hours and are either not available for family dinners or are too tired at the end of a long workday to cook.

Some parents are not comfortable with the process of cooking and some parents who have issues with their own eating may not be comfortable eating with their family. Some child behaviors, such as picky eating and poor table manners, can also contribute to a negative experience and a decreased desire to arrange future family meals.

Family meals have not typically been the focus of the work of psychologists as a number of other pressing issues are likely at the forefront of psychologists’ interventions with clients. However, psychologists possess skills that can be applied to both promoting the family meal and to helping families change behaviors to increase the frequency of family meals. Psychologists are well trained at assessing problems and identifying the level of intervention needed to help clients develop solutions.

Some families may simply need to be educated about the importance of eating together. Yet how often do we ask about the frequency and the manner in which the families eat? Do we know if the children eat at separate times or eat different foods from their parents on a regular basis?

Often parents adopt these common practices out of convenience, but with education about the benefits of eating together as a family parents may be able to make changes in their dining practices without a great deal of effort.

Other families may face challenges with structure and organization that affect the family meal. When family eating patterns range from inconsistent to chaotic, psychologists can offer parents strategies for imposing order. Psychologists can also offer parents guidance on how to plan meals in advance as well as preparation techniques that increase efficiency.

If psychologists do not have expertise in these domains, they can assist parents in locating helpful resources online or in their communities. Once family meals are established, psychologists can also apply their skills to promote positive communication at the family table.

Psychologists also have much to offer families with problems in the area of feeding dynamics. Feeding children takes place within the context of a parenting relationship. Feeding practices and expectations are influenced by extended family, culture and individual temperament.

Struggles for control between children and their parents often come to light in battles over eating and feeding. Psychologists with an understanding of feeding dynamics, as well as family dynamics, can help families identify and alter dysfunctional aspects of the parent-child feeding relationship. This type of work requires knowledge and understanding of normative child development, child eating capabilities, effective parenting skills and parent-child relationships.

Children today often have limited time with their parents. In the current economic climate, many parents have to place greater emphasis on their work. At the same time, some children have unprecedented exposure to enrichment activities. These circumstances can lead to less of a focus on the family, resulting in a loss of guidance and support for the children.

Reinstating the family meal can be one effective way of maintaining family presence in children’s lives. Psychologists have a wide range of skills that can be applied to improve family meals and can thereby make meaningful interventions in the lives of their clients.

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Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is founder and director of Dinner Together, LLC, which provides consultations to families on meal-related issues. She may be reached through her website: www.dinnertogether.com.

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