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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Family meals mean love and security

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

The day-in, day-out of structured, sit-down family meals and snacks reassure your child you love her and will provide for her. Meals provide the backbone for your family life by giving a reliable context for the work of your family: nurturing your children, supporting appropriate nutrition and growth, easing relationships with the outside world. Following the division of responsibility in feeding ensures that those family meals are pleasant and rewarding for you and your child. Conversely, children feel afraid when adults are casual about feeding them or don’t let them have enough to eat. Children are a captive audience who absolutely depend on us to provide for them.

A meal: When we sit down and share food  

In The Surprising Power of Family Meals, Mariam Weinstein asked architect Witold Rybczynski to apply his principles of sense of place to where to eat.1 ”We eat facing each other,” he stated. ”It’s the facing each other that is important.” Such a fine answer can define the meal itself: A meal is when we sit down and eat facing each other. To that, add a feeding-dynamics principle: A meal is everybody’s sharing the same food.

What needs to happen at a meal?

Cultivate the attitude that it is a privilege to be at family meals. Expect children to contribute to making meals pleasant.

Good times, connecting, checking in, talking and listening. Children are entitled to part of the attention, but not all of it. Children learn to converse when parents ask specific questions such as ”Who did you see today?” ”What word did you study today?” and then ask for more detail. Children learn to listen when grownups talk with each other. Children love hearing family stories and learn to tell their own stories. Children feel connected when they know about their families, and that enhances their psychological functioning and resilience.2

How many family meals a week are enough to get the benefit? 

… Asked the belligerent young father at a parent presentation. His glowering wife clued me in to a struggle for the father’s time. It’s a matter of attitude, I responded. Making family meals a priority is identical with making your family a priority. If they truly come first for you, children will know that and meals and other activities will fall into place. She smiled; he didn’t.

How do I deal with negative mealtime behavior? 

Make mealtimes pleasant, cultivate the attitude that it is a privilege to be there, expect children to contribute to the pleasure of it all, and excuse them if they don’t. Children who are relaxed, comfortable, and behave nicely at family meals eat as much as they need to grow well and sooner or later learn to eat almost all the food their grownups eat. 


1. The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Weinstein M. Where We Eat–and Where Not to. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press; 2005:86-96.

2. Duke MP, Fivush R, Lazarus A, Bohanek J. Of Ketchup and Kin: Dinnertime Conversations As a Major Source of Family Knowledge, Family Adjustment and Family Resilience. Working paper # 26 ed. Emory Center for Myth and ritual in American Life; 2003.


The toddler and preschooler chapters in Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense give strategies for including children in family meals. You will recognize your own children in Satter’s funny feeding stories!  


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