A Recipe for Routines
During the first half term of the academic year, we host welcome events for each year group, inviting parents to meet with tutors and members of the Senior Leadership Team.
As well as providing the opportunity for parents to meet with teachers and other parents, we use the evenings to set the scene for the year ahead and to put across some words of wisdom and plain-speaking advice for each new stage of parenting. In two of my talks this year, I mentioned in passing something I’d like to make a bigger point of here: I can’t recommend it highly enough that families make it a habit and an expectation that they eat together in the evening as much as possible.
Eating family meals was one of the huge perks of lockdown and the joy that this simple ritual created in families’ lives was reiterated again and again as people reflected on their positive pandemic experiences. Out of lockdown, it is sad to see how many families have abandoned this practice; indeed, Sainsbury’s research suggests that only 28% of families regularly eat together. It is not just sad, but regrettable. 72% of families are missing a trick – especially if those families have adolescent children with whom keeping regular communication is so vital and sometimes so challenging. The family meal ritual is brilliant for making sure that, at least once a day, communication happens. It is a non-threatening way of communicating with people sitting shoulder to shoulder and having the distraction of the meal itself, allowing adolescents to feel more comfortable chatting in a non-pressurised way.
This is similar to the ease with which teens will often speak to parents more readily whilst out walking together or sitting side-by-side on a car journey. The family meal ritual, however, is particularly important; it is excellent for instilling good eating habits – leading by example, without talking about it at length. It also creates an opportunity for shared responsibility within the household, with everyone contributing either to the making of the meal or to the clearing up. It forces everyone off their devices and it creates a break in the evening where everyone comes out of their own head and their own online bubble to spend quality time together – without the pressure that comes from more contrived ‘quality time’. If it just happens, most days, then some meals will be fun and energetic, full of chatter and energy; some meals will just pass without being particularly noteworthy or fulfilling.
Simply by happening, family mealtimes are reinforcing a basic need: relationship nurturing.
There are lots of circumstances that families may use to explain why this is impossible: differing dietary habits, demanding work schedules, a sense that preparing a meal is too onerous… Whilst these may present challenges, none of them can’t be overcome by the most determined of family-meal advocates. In fact, the very act of overcoming them is part of what is so beneficial – for everyone. Of course, there may be nights of the week when it’s not possible to have everyone together. But, it is rarely the case that it isn’t possible to get together at least several times a week, if everyone puts their heads together to make it work and if parents insist. As soon as it becomes habitual for each person to make their own meal and take it with them to a bedroom or office (all in the same house but in separate spaces eating separate food) the slope is slippery. One can always justify why life is just too busy for sitting down to a meal together. I would argue that, for adolescents who need structure, regularity and consistency of contact with their parents, one can’t afford not to. The benefits of making it possible are too huge to be ignored; and the costs of a family becoming fractured, only fleetingly passing on their way to and from the fridge, are too worrying.
Adolescents need structure, regularity and consistency of contact with their parents.
So, if I could recommend one single routine to stick to with energy and determination during the adolescent years it is this: eat together, as much as possible. Make it a totally normal expectation so that there is no question, no challenge. ‘When we are all in the same house at dinner time, we eat together. We just do.’ The benefits are immense.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.