When I was small, eating together was a huge part of family life we had lots of big meals with grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else who happened to be passing... I am a massive advocate of communal eating. Not only is sharing food a lovely way of spending time with the important people in your life, it is also incredibly beneficial for children in terms of the development of social skills and a positive relationship with food.
One thing I remember about those childhood meals though, is the INTERMINABLE sitting when I had eaten my meal, waiting for the adults to finish eating theirs. I am a super quick eater now and was then too. Sitting quietly at the table long after I'd finished was hard for me! My grandma ate slowly and carefully, and liked to talk too... I don't doubt I learnt valuable lessons about respect and self control, while I waited for her to finish her meal, but it was tough sometimes. There is a fine line between letting children hop down the minute they've had all they want and having a reasonable expectation about how long they should stay at the table. In this post, I'm going to be exploring where this line is.
How long should meals be?
Different people have different answers to this one, and ultimately, you need to come up with your own timings based on your schedule, your expectations and your child's personality and eating style. I tend to err on the generous side, and I recommend up to 45 minutes for a main meal (many feeding professionals recommend 30), 30 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes for a snack.
On the other end of the scale, I usually suggest that less than 20 minutes for a main meal is not enough. According to this article, research shows that more positive effects were associated with meals with an average duration of 19.9 minutes compared to an average of 16.4 minutes. These extra minutes matter! Equally, It's important to take age and stage into account, and for a toddler who's wolfed her lunch in five minutes flat, you wouldn't want to insist she sat at the table doing nothing for quarter of an hour. Let's consider this in the light of children's differing needs:
The slow eater
Just as I'm a quick eater by nature (and I'm pretty fast-paced generally, much to the irritation of my laid back husband...) some people are simply slow eaters. That's just who they are. It isn't fair to a child who is a slow eater, to force them to rush their food. Many parents tell me they feel schools are guilty of this sometimes, prioritising their need to have the children through the dinner hall and ready for lessons again, over the children's need to eat in a relaxed, low-pressure way.
We all have places to be and things to do, so how can we make space and time for our slow eaters to eat at their own pace? Setting a clear structure is the first step. Decide how much time you can allow for a meal (use my 45 minute maximum as a guide) then look at how this can fit in your schedule, and where you may be able to make compromises. You may discover, for example, that you can eat fifteen minutes earlier by preparing food in advance, then you can fit in a 35 minute meal.
Next communicate this to your child. If they are old enough to tell the time and take responsibility for checking this themselves, you can say, at 6pm, we're done. If they are younger, sand timers are a great visual aid and timers set to beep work well too. Rather than just setting a timer for the end of the meal, incorporate a ten minute warning so nobody gets stressed out!
Simply take food away once the time is up. This will allow everyone to be calm, no nagging required. Children pick up new routines pretty quickly. The benefit of having a clear structure like this is that kids will learn to make their own decisions about how quickly to eat, based on their bodies' needs and their understanding of the consequences of not eating within the allotted time. This is so much better than them eating because you are having to pressure them to do so. It will make meals more enjoyable for you, too.
The fast eater
We all know a child who has many better and more interesting things to do than be part of a family meal. Some kids like to simply eat, and go. Again, base your expectations on your child's age and stage. You may feel a nine year old should sit with the family until everyone is done. You may not feel the same about a four year old.
Once you've thought about what your goal is, go in gradually. Work at this over one month. Imagine you have decided that you feel your five year old should wait for ten minutes after they have finished, waiting for the rest of the family. Here's how your one month plan would work:
- Week 1 - have them sit at the table for two minutes after they have finished (use a timer to help them)
- Week 2 - have them sit at the table for five minutes after they have finished
- Week 3 - have them sit at the table for seven minutes after they have finished
- Week 4 - build up to ten minutes over this week
Remember that age is not everything, and children with special needs may not be capable of staying at the table for a long time after they have eaten. Each child is an individual, and as their parent, you are the best judge of what is right for them and for your family.
The most important thing of all is that you keep the atmosphere relaxed and positive around meals. The pleasanter it is to be at the table, the more children will want to be there! Focus on chatting to them and having a good time rather than on what and how they are eating. I'm a huge fan of the Family Dinner Project website, where you will find loads of ideas to help you get the conversation started at mealtimes. Whether you have a reluctant eater, a speedy eater or a slow coach on your hands, the main thing is to make family meals happy times for all of you.