Making the Most of Meal Times

By Dora Doss, M.S., SLP-CCC

Image from Photospin.com by Angel Nieto, CC0
Image from Photospin.com by Angel Nieto, CC0

As a speech and language pathologist (SLP) and mother of three children ages 14, 11, and 3, I enjoy family mealtimes for the social, language, and bonding opportunities they provide.  Yet when my boys were 3 and 1, I worked full time while my spouse was deployed and dinnertime was our most challenging time of day. Often, one child wanted to play and the other cried while I cooked and served dinner – certainly not the most conducive setting for quality mealtime interactions.  As an early childhood professional, I was keenly aware of the value of family mealtimes and I wanted to capitalize on this after being away from my kids all day, and yet it was still very difficult.

So, I decided to try something a little different.  Instead of trying to force quality time at the end of a long day, I turned my attention towards making our weekend breakfast meals the quality family mealtime I had tried so hard to foster during the week.  In order to achieve this, I did two things. First, I let go of the pressure to have a sit-down meal with my boys; often I served, ate, and cleaned up simultaneously.  Even though I was up and moving during meal time, I was still able to engage in meaningful ways with them.  Second, I had a friend who was experiencing the same challenge with her children.  Collaboratively we had meals together once a week (sometimes more) when our husbands were away due to work obligations. These somewhat simple changes made a big difference in the quality of my family’s meal time interactions during this stressful period of raising children as a military spouse.

Interestingly, research has found that more complex language structures occur during family mealtimes[i] than during play time and book reading.[ii]  Simple things such as labeling “apple,” requesting “more apples,” and commenting “my apple” all promote the use of a variety of communicative functions. Caregivers may expand on the child’s utterances by using self-talk, such as, “I’m taking a bite of my apple,” and parallel talk such as, “You took a bite of your green apple,” which provide exposure to meaningful language without the need for the child to imitate or respond.  Mealtimes are also rich with narratives and turn taking, not to mention the cultural and social connections that are fostered.

Sometimes families or professionals may wonder if mealtimes can be equally beneficial for a child with a more severe communication deficit or a child who does not receive nutrition orally.  I would suggest that, yes, family meals are just as important, if not more so.  A child who does not receive nutrition orally can benefit from the sensory aspect of smells and also from the sharing of language, cultural, and social experiences with family members surrounding food.  A child who has a severe communication deficit can be exposed to the language rich environment of mealtime while communication opportunities can be modified to meet their needs.  All children, regardless of communication ability, benefit from the structure and routine of a shared mealtime.

Providers should consider a family’s unique schedule to optimize suggestions for family mealtimes, that would promote a positive atmosphere[iii] and caregivers who are warm and engaged.  As I mentioned earlier, in my own personal experience, this was more likely to occur around our family breakfast table on Saturdays and Sundays than on our rushed weeknights.  Be creative to help each family determine what mealtimes might work best for them and their unique circumstances.  Additionally, Luther and Lantendresse (2005) found positive outcomes for mealtime interactions with only one caregiver present.[iv]   The connection established during a shared meal or snack[v] between the caregiver and the child is what is most important.

Communicative mealtime interactions lay the foundation for continued family meals[i] later which can foster growth and development throughout childhood.  Therefore, establishing this routine early in life is important.  Now that my children are older, I’m glad I persevered to establish a mealtime routine when they were young.  Having added a third child to our family in the last few years, we have dinner 4-5 times a week together, and these family meals have become a cherished routine for us.  It is fun to see my 3-year-old daughter’s language grow to keep pace with her big brothers, and we all enjoy the humor in the many wonderful things she chooses to discuss with us.

[i] Anderson, J., & Trumbull, D. (2014). The benefits of the family table [Blog Post]. 

[ii] Snow, C. E., & Beals, D. E. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New directions for child and adolescent development2006(111), 51-66.

[iii] Fishel, A. (2015, January 12) The most important thing you can do you’re your kids? Eat dinner with them. {Blog Post].

[iv] Luthar, S. S., & Latendresse, S. J. (2005). Children of the affluent: Challenges to well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science14(1), 49-53. DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00333.x

[v] Story, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). A perspective on family meals: do they matter?. Nutrition Today40(6), 261-266.

This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Michaelene Ostrosky, Ph.D., members of the MFLN FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on YouTube.

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