Nourish Your Child’s Resilience by Eating Together as a Family
“Eat together and do not eat separately, for the blessing is in being together”
Prophet Muhammad (saws)
As Muslims, every time we sit to eat and recite the ‘Bismillah’ we are reminding ourselves of the Source of our nourishment and reconnecting with a spiritual practice that has been taught to us by Allah’s (swt) prophets (as) and passed down through the generations.
When practiced regularly family mealtimes can provide a child with sense or connection. They provide predictability and security and a sense of belonging to a family, culture and faith, all of which are essential for healthy child development.
In Islam the sharing of food and eating together has been held in high esteem, and as the above hadith states, contains within it great blessings. Traditionally Muslim families and cultures have largely managed to maintain this practice of coming together at least once a day to spend time together over the sharing of food.
However, for those of us living in the West, eating together as a family may be one of the first daily practices to become sacrificed, or surreptitiously lost, due to the increased stresses and strains of modern-day life that de-prioritises the family. Long work hours, commutes, homework, after school activities and the never-ending allure of the screen … not to mention the increasing number of single parent households who have to juggle everything and everyone to survive …. all invariably impact on the ease with which we can find the time to sit and eat together as a family.
Current research is now simply confirming the blessings of eating together that we as Muslims already knew to be the case, even if we were not aware of the details as to why. Studies are now uncovering how eating together can help develop a child’s resilience as well as physical and psychological health and academic performance. And whilst western science does not tend to consider spiritual benefits, as Muslims we invariably understand and know that the spiritual blessings of eating together are many.
A Quick Look at Some of the Empirical Findings & Benefits of Family Meals
Mental Health & Resilience
Children who enjoy family meals are more likely to develop a stronger sense of belonging and have relationships that are closer and stronger with other family members. Fulkerson (2010) found that family members had better communication with each other and a stronger sense of closeness when they ate together. Teenagers were also found to have better and more positive communication with their families when families shared meals.
Such impacts would likely help nurture a child’s self-worth and help them become more resilient. In a study (Elgar 2014) into cyber bullying, children who ate meals with their families were found to be more resilient, suffered less mental health problems, less behavioural problems and less substance abuse problems than other children who had been cyberbullied. Haines (2010) also found that the chance of developing an eating disorder or food related problem was decreased in families who eat together.
High risk behaviours in adolescents were also found to be reduced when families ate their meals together (Sen, 2010). The chance of girls experimenting with substances was reduced, boys were found less likely to drink or become involved in violent or delinquent behaviours, and both boys and girls were less likely to run away. Harbec & Pagani (2018) also found that children who had family meals were less likely to be physically aggressive, oppositional or display delinquent behaviours.
Family meals have also been linked to higher academic achievement in children, and is seen as a better predictor of academic performance than time spent on homework, sport or art ( Offer 2013). One study (Partnership to End Addiction, 2012) found that teenagers from families who ate 5-7 meals a week together were twice as likely to get Grade A’s in their school work than those children who ate together twice a week or less.
Children who enjoy family meals have been found to have healthier diets, including consuming less sugary drinks and foods, and eating increased amounts of fruit and vegetables. Children/teens have also been found to be able to moderate their portion intake more successfully compared to those children/teens who eat alone. Harbec & Pagani (2018) found that children aged six who had family meals were predicted to enjoy better physical health and levels of fitness at age 10.
The benefits of eating together as a family are numerous and the evidence is mounting as to how this simple family act can support and strengthen families and help develop healthier and more resilient children. It is also an act that anyone can do or implement at any time … you don’t need any special knowledge or equipment and it’s never to late to start or re-establish. Eating together as a family is a practice that has existed since the beginning of time, however it had become largely displaced by our modern lifestyles.
How to Help Re-Establish and/or Improve Family Mealtimes
Many of you probably already have an established routine of family mealtimes and are doing an amazing job of it – the below is just for those of us who may want to re-establish it as a family practice and make it more of an intentional part of the week InShaAlllah. There are also a few ideas of ways to make special meal times fun and bespoke to our faith and to your family InShaAllah.
Set Your Intention Then Prioritise & Plan It!
The importance of family meals cannot be underestimated. Family meals therefore need to be seen and understood as a priority!
Set your intention on pleasing Allah and on strengthening your family bonds. Then come together to discuss and decide with your family on the number of times a week, and which days/eves, that family meals will take place. Mark it somewhere visible such as on a wall calendar in the kitchen, or on a family activity planner on the fridge etc, so that everyone knows when the family meal is and that they are expected to be there! Even if people have different activities that may clash – everyone needs to understand that family meals should take priority and that the needs of the family, sometimes need to override the needs of the individual.
Research has found that the more often families eat together the better. However, it is important to do what works for your family to ensure success – whether it is a couple of evenings a week, several breakfasts a week and/or a special family meal and outing at the weekend. The main thing is that it is done consistently, and everyone knows it is an integral part of the weekly schedule.
Create a Sense of Shared Involvement & Belonging
Rather than having one person do all the work, involve everyone in the planning and execution of the family meal…especially if it is a special meal or only once a week! Children can learn about helping others and working as a team, and practice taking on increasing amounts of responsibility. It will help develop their moral characters and help them foster a sense of duty to Alah (swt) and to the other family members. If it is a regular weekly meal children can be involved in helping prepare the food, setting the table/sufra, bring food to the table/floor, and in helping tidy and wash up afterwards. Boys and girls should equally be encouraged in these tasks!
It is important that everyone takes an active part as children learn through observation. In some cultures or households, the husband/men of the house may do very little to help with mealtimes. There may be many reasons for this such as they are out at work, tired or it is just a cultural expectation. The latter however has no roots in Islamic practice and the men should be encouraged to help in the house to set a good example to their children as is the way of the Prophet (saw). Shared family mealtimes can provide an opportunity for everyone to become involved and to share in the work and enjoyment, and blessings InShaAllah.
By becoming involved in the preparation, making etc of the meal, children with feel a stronger sense of connection and belonging, which will have a positive effect on the wellbeing and sense of family and identity InShaAllah.
Bonding & Memories
Eating together in general, and especially when special family meals are held, will help lay down important memories for your children. Often families cook certain foods linked to their culture, recipes handed down through the generations, or new and inventive meals that you come up with yourselves as a family. All these will help strengthen your family bonds and develop a sense of family identity and tradition.
Shared mealtimes in general are also a great way for families to simply spend relaxed and positive time together. They can provide a great platform to recount stories – parents can tell their children stories from their own childhoods, maybe tales from their countries of origin (where relevant), stories about other cultures as well as share stories from our Islamic history, ahadith and so on.
You can create your own family rituals and interweave Islamic teachings where appropriate. These family traditions will become embedded in your child’s memory and become something that they may well continue to practice with their own children and for generations to come InShaAllah.
These traditions can be used to build a sense of identity with their Islamic faith, their culture and also with your own specific family. Think with your children about what is important to you as a family… what values matter to you?
Ultimately it should be an occasion that everyone looks forward to.
Communication & Manners
When all family members are mindful of everyone’s rights and duties, and parents’ model appropriate behaviours and set clear boundaries, then children will naturally learn key social skills. They will learn how to interact with others and learn how to communicate and articulate their thoughts and form opinions. They will also learn how to share, how to take turns and how to listen to others. Communication is one of the most important skills and children will inevitably develop their language and vocabulary skills when families eat and talk together.
Shared mealtimes also help children develop a healthy relationship with food, try out new foods and helps them learn how to moderate what they eat.
Manners are of the utmost importance in Islam and family mealtimes provide a way to teach children the prophetic etiquettes of eating, talking and social interacting. They will learn far more from this direct and experiential way of learning that will become embedded in their way of being InShaAllah.
Family mealtimes importantly provide a time to check in with how everyone is feeling, their news, worries, hopes etc. You can introduce a ritual such as everyone states the best and the worst thing for them about the day or week or they share one worry and one desire they have. Practicing gratitude such as naming 3 things each person is grateful to Allah (swt) for in that day etc is another example of a family ritual that can be woven into mealtimes. Such examples help provide a way for family members to connect and share with each other. It is important to make sure every family member is given a space to share and speak and the others listen patiently.
Set a Few Ground Rules
Whilst family meals should be enjoyable, it may be helpful to have some basic rules to ensure that everyone is present – in the psychological as well as the physical sense! One of the main distractions in our current age is the mobile phone! As a family it may be advisable that all family members leave their phones, or any other screen or technological device in another room during the meal. Family meals are about being with each other and communication with each other and phones etc simply disrupt this. Even if they are on the table or in someone’s pocket – it may be simply too tempting to take a peek when you hear a notification. So agree as a family to all leave devices somewhere where they won’t interfere with the meal.
A Note for Parents
Parents do need to be mindful that they are setting an example for their children and children will learn from observing you rather than what you say. So make sure your own manners/adab are in order before your teach your child. Mealtimes should not be seen as an opportunity to lecture or chastise your children. Work on listening more than talking, be open and curious when your child speaks to encourage them to talk more freely. This will help you strengthen your relationship with them as well as find out what is going on for them in their minds and in their lives.
♥ Islamic Teaching or Theme e.g. cook a meal using food mentioned in the Quran
♥ Islamic Events – make a special family tradition & meal linked to an Islamic event
♥ Educational meals – make a meal that relates to something your child is learning at school or something you are teaching them at home e.g. an Egyptian meal if learning about the Ancient Egyptians
♥ Family Recipes – use an inherited family recipe or make up a new one with your child
♥ Cultural Meals – make a meal from your culture but maybe do some research into and discuss the origins of it
♥ Themed meals e.g geometry meal where everything you eat needs to be made in a geometric shape!
♥ Personal Family Member meals – each family member gets a time e.g. once a month or every few months to choose, plan, cook etc a special family meal
Get creative and have some fun InShaAllah!
Elgar FJ, Napoletano A, Saul G, et al. Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(11):1015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.1223
Fulkerson JA, Pasch KE, Stigler MH, Farbakhsh K, Perry CL, Komro KA. Longitudinal associations between family dinner and adolescent perceptions of parent–child communication among racially diverse urban youth. J Fam Psychol. 2010;24(3):261-270. doi:10.1037/a0019311
Haines J, Kleinman KP, Rifas-Shiman SL, Field AE, Austin SB. Examination of Shared Risk and Protective Factors for Overweight and Disordered Eating Among Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164(4). doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.19
Harbec M-J, Pagani LS. Associations Between Early Family Meal Environment Quality and Later Well-Being in School-Age Children. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2018;39(2):136-143. doi:10.1097/dbp.0000000000000520
Offer S. Family Time Activities and Adolescents’ Emotional Well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2013;75(1):26-41. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.01025.x
Partnership to End Addiction. The Importance of Family Dinners VIII. Published September 2012.