Are your meals a time of Connection or Dysfunction?

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Connection:

Food is much more than nourishment.  Sharing food is also about human connection. Some of my favourite memories are sharing meals with friends and family.

Like many families we have a very busy schedule with my husband’s irregular working hours and my boy’s swimming schedule so mealtimes are not always shared.  However, knowing the importance of family mealtime I take advantage of every opportunity we can to sit down and eat together.  While eating, I have my children’s attention and can ask them about their school day or activities.  Sometimes it’s a slow start but funny thing once one son starts sharing about their day, the other two typically want to share too. They often use the term “Breaking news” when they want to share something about their day as small as “what girl likes what boy” or “who got in trouble” (it’s never them – eyeroll).

Research has shown that simply sitting down at the kitchen table and sharing family meals has a positive impact on children and teenager’s development.  Children and teens that eat regular meals with their family have been shown to have improved food choices, better nutrient intakes, lower eating disorder risk, better social adjustment and improved school performance. Teens specifically involved in meal preparation have also been shown to have improved vegetable and fruit intake.

I believe that sharing meals for adults (with or without children) is equally important.  Personally I cherish the meals I get to share with my girlfriends, family friends, and coworkers.  It is a time to try new restaurants or experience new cuisine (that may be a bit too adventurous for my children).  More than that, it is a time to catch up, de-stress with laughter, get advice and possibly vent.  For many adults it provides a sense of belonging and community.  It allows us time to fulfill our desire to be heard, understood and affirmed in who we are.

Dysfunction:

The following are 3 mealtime struggles I commonly see in my practice:

1. Child Food Fights.

Mealtime should not be a regular battleground of tension, struggle and fighting.  Not uncommon to many families is the power struggle between parents and young children over food. Whether the concern is picky eating, eating too much/too little, etc.  If this is happening at your table, you may need to evaluate or seek guidance on changing your approach to childhood feeding.  Mealtime should be a calm and comfortable environment for children without pressure from grownups.  For example, meals should be a time where kids can feel free to try or not try new foods and finish or not finish everything on their plate.  “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” -Ellyn Satter (Childhood feeding expert, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Family Therapist)

2. Dieting Disruption.

When a parent(s) is dieting it disrupts the unity and enjoyment of sharing the meal.  I’m not talking simply cutting down portions but eating in a totally different way than the rest of the family or eating at a different time.   Others will have a list of “food rules” of what they can or cannot eat.  With chronic dieting “You have forgotten what you really like to eat and instead eat what you think you should eat.” -Evelyn Tribole (Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works)  A dieting parent may never eat dessert or call themselves “bad” when they do.  Children have watchful eyes and ears that pick up on parental behaviours.  This can lead children to question their own food choices and whether “they need to lose weight or diet too”.  Just like in many other areas of life, children need their parents to be role models with eating.  Instead of dieting focus on healthy behaviours that can benefit the whole family.  For example, focus on balancing the family meal better by offering more vegetable options.

3. Eating Disorder Destruction.

Nothing breaks my heart more than seeing eating disorders rip families apart.  A family member so ill with their eating disorder that mealtime becomes a battleground of control and frustration.  The individual may be so overwhelmed with anxiety and fear that they basically “shut down” at the table.  For some people struggling with an eating disorder, their fears of eating around others or eating food that they did not prepare becomes so terrifying that they socially isolate themselves from friends, colleagues and their own family.  They miss birthday parties, BBQ’s, holiday celebrations, school and/or work events.  For single people, they may avoid dating and meeting new people for fear that food may be involved.  Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that destroy the natural human connection fostered at mealtime and instead create a disconnect and isolation from others.  If you suspect you or your loved one has an eating disorder – reach out for help right away.  The sooner a person receives support and treatment for an eating disorder, the better the recovery outcomes.

Links to useful resources:

Eating Disorders: http://www.nedic.ca

Freedom from Chronic Dieting: http://www.intuitiveeating.org

Childhood Feeding: http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org

*Seek support if you or your family is experiencing struggles at mealtime.  Look for a Registered Dietitian and therapist that specializes in your area of concern.

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