New research into Australian dinner time traits finds the majority of Australian parents have a relaxed attitude towards table manners because their first concern is not about how or where their children eat dinner. It is that their dinner is a healthy nutritious one.
The survey of 1,000 families commissioned by Meat & Livestock Australia found that most families find the time to eat together at the dinner table four times a week. The second most common place for children to eat is on the lounge or sofa (45% of children had done this in the past week), followed by a restaurant or a friend's house (35%), a bedroom (8%), outside (8%) and then the floor (7%).
While the way in which Australian children are eating their dinner may not be considered -proper' in the traditional sense, they are eating -proper dinners' in the form of nutritionally balanced meals. Beef and lamb meals including spaghetti bolognese, roast lamb and veggies and a beef stew rate highly amongst children as their favourite foods.
Accredited Practising Dietitian Geraldine Georgeou and mum of one says: 'It's great to see that a majority of parents already recognise the importance of a nutritious dinner. A nutritious dinner provides the right balance of a protein rich food such as beef or lamb 3-4 times a week, good quality grains and plenty of veggies to give your family the nutrients their body needs, such as iron and zinc. There are many quick and easy meal solutions which can also be nutritious, such as beef and vegetable stir fry or chilli con carne."
For most parents (94%), eating dinner together as a family at the dinner table is considered important and eight in ten (81%) say it is the most important meal of the day. But most families admit that even when eating at the dinner table, anything can happen. Kids talking with their mouth full, arguing with siblings, using electronic devices, even eating in their underwear – these are some of the dinner time traits reported in Australian homes each night.
Child psychologist and mother of two, Kimberley O'Brien comments: 'Dinner time with the kids can prove challenging. As the survey revealed, anything can happen when families gather round the table! Feeding children the foods they love can be a useful tactic to entice co-operation. When it comes to health and wellbeing, it doesn't really matter how children eat their meals, it's what they eat that counts most."
On the occasions when families aren't eating together at the dinner table, the main reasons include busy work schedules, children wanting to watch TV and after school activities.
When it comes to behaviour at the dinner table, Australian parents still value traditional table manners. No less than 97% believe it is important to teach children table manners and seven in ten (70%) believe that all children should sit at the dinner table until they are told to leave.
Proper Dinners Tips - Accredited Practising Dietitian Geraldine Georgeou
1. A proper dinner is about balance. A proper dinner is different for every family. Your food preferences, culture and even what day of the week it is play a role in what's on the menu each night! However putting these differences aside, we should all be aiming to eat a proper dinner at night with plenty of vegies, a nutrient-rich protein food such as beef or lamb and wholegrain, high fibre or low GI grains. The vegetables should take up about half your plate, while your protein and grains should take up about a quarter of your plate each.
2. A quick simple meal can also be healthy and nutritious. If you are short of time, think grilling, stir frying, BBQ or pan-fry as a simple and nutritious solution. Try lean beef strips stir-fried with Asian greens and noodles or pan fried lean beef sirloin steak or fish with steamed vegetables and sweet potato mash make a great family dinner. Examples of nutritious proper dinners I remember are my mum's roast lamb with baked medley of potato, pumpkin and sweet potato, peas, carrot and broccoli. Another memorable family dinner is my mother-in-law's lean lamb souvlaki with homemade tzatziki, Greek style pita and Greek salad with home grown tomatoes and cucumbers on a Sunday afternoon.
3. Choose a variety of foods over the week to meet your families nutrient needs. Base your proper dinner around a different nutrient-rich protein food each day. For example, enjoy 3- 4 dinners with beef or lamb for iron and zinc, fish once or twice a week for omega 3, incorporate legumes into salads, casseroles and spaghetti bolognaise for additional dietary fibre and try an egg omelette in fried rice or a frittata for a quick meal that is also a good source of protein and nutrients.
4. Quality time with the family at dinner also means good nutrition. An important part of dinner that many families overlook is sitting down together, instead of watching television. With many families struggling for spare time, sitting down at dinner is a great way to have quality conversations with the whole family, helping to bring a sense of unity to family life where children feel safe and loved. Apart from this, research suggests children who eat regular family meals at home have healthier diets and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, grains and key nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins B and vitamin C.
5. Solutions for cooking around your busy schedule. Parents can prepare foods in advance for the week by 'batch" cooking and freezing part of a meal which can be simply reheated for the next day. For example, Spaghetti bolognaise - lean beef mince can be cooked in batches, frozen and then thawed and reheated ready to serve with freshly cooked pasta and salad to make a great family meal. Curries, casseroles and slow cooked 'hot pot" can also be cooked in advance and frozen in batches and be ready for an evening meal as required. Cook extra lean beef rissoles for dinner to be available the next day to pop into a children's lunch box.
For recipe ideas visit www.femail.com.au/lowfatrecipes
For more proper dinner tips, advice and nutritious recipe ideas, visit www.themainmeal.com.au
Kimberley O'Brien is one of Australia's most trusted and recognised Child Psychologists with a knack for solving issues from the child's perspective.
With 15 years' experience working around Australia and internationally, Kimberley is now Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in Woollahra (Sydney) offering consultation, assessments and practical strategies for children, adolescents and families.
Question: What does dinner time look like in most Australian households today?
Kimberley O'Brien: Thankfully most Australian families still eat together, four times a week, but in some cases kids are eating on the lounge (45%), in bedrooms (8%), on the floor (7%) or at friends places (35%). Dinner time may look quite chaotic in some households however the most important thing is that parents are focused on their kids eating healthy, nutritious meals.
Question: How does, what we are seeing now, differ from say 10 years ago?
Kimberley O'Brien: Previously parents have been more focused on manners including elbows off the table with meals times as a regimented, disciplined experience whereas now parents allow screens at the table or eating in front of the television which has changed. What hasn't changed is the focus on healthy eating.
Question: Do you see this as a negative change?
Kimberley O'Brien: I think it's important for kids to not have distractions at meal time and have the family time together to talk about the day, any issues that have come up and plan for the next day so I recommend that families should try and eat together, four or more times a week, if possible. I'm glad there is still a focus on healthy family eating, with beef or lamb four times a week with lots of vegetables because kids are asking for these types of meals and saying they're their favourites. If parents neglect the nutrition as well as where the kids are eating there would be many more issues.
Question: How important is connecting with the family, at dinner time around a dinner table?
Kimberley O'Brien: It's a really important connection and it is important socially to eat at a meal table. Tables and chairs are important because it formalises an experience along with improving social skills; if the family isn't sitting at the table or not eating meals together social skills will decline.
Question: What bad behaviours or manners are we seeing at Australian family dinner tables?
Kimberley O'Brien: According to the Meat & Livestock Australia survey of 1,000 families, parents reported that their kids would talk with their mouth full, argue with siblings, use electronic devices or eat in their underwear. I think it can look quite chaotic around meal times. If parents have the time to prepare a meal they should take a look at the website www.themainmeal.com.au for recipe ideas and rather than letting meal times get to the point of chaos, parents could be more focused on routines and having a great meal, around the table, as a family before moving onto getting ready for bed. Routines are especially important for kids under the age of 10 for stability.
I've observed kids using phones in the waiting from of Quirky Kid Clinic or if their parents are in a session. I also see parents scrolling through their emails during a Quirky Kid Clinic session and I know that things have changed with the introduction of technology however I still think the skills are important especially because 97% of parents think it's important for kids to have good table manners including staying at the table until everyone has finished their meal.
Question: How should parents approach bad table manners or behaviour?
Kimberley O'Brien: We've developed a product at the Quirky Kid Clinic which is Tickets and it is a behaviour management system based on goals. For example the goal may be to finish all the food on the plate and if they can do that they receive a ticket and after three tickets there is a -scratch and win' which is a family experience such as going to the beach or building a cubby house. And for the next evening the goal could be changed and be not only finishing the meal but start a conversation about the day. The system encourages families to increase the goals and rewarding kids when they meet the target.
Question: What are your top tips to encourage children to eat healthy, nutritious dinners?
Kimberley O'Brien: Give kids what they like, if they ask for Spaghetti Bolognaise, Beef Stir-fry or my kids particularly like Lamb Cutlets, I think it's a good idea to give them what they like but also a meal that is healthy and balanced and serve beef and lamb four times a week. It's important to make sure children like the food as well as getting them involved in the cooking process along with one or two basic rules about what your expectations are at the table with a focus on finishing the meal without going over the top with a long list of behaviours.
Question: How important is it that parents involve their children in dinner preparation?
Kimberley O'Brien: It's important to involved children in dinner preparation because then they have more ownership over the meal and they'll get hungry as they're preparing the meal. Rather than putting food on a plate and calling them to the table and making them eat it you can start the process earlier by getting them to help you choose a recipe and then making it together. With older children you can ask them to serve a portion onto their plate. It's important to not overwhelm children with a huge portion, especially children under five as that can put them off.
Question: Did the results of the Meat & Livestock Australia family survey surprise you?
Kimberley O'Brien: I was surprised that 7% of children were eating on the floor as I thought they'd be more likely to be at the table making a mess as sitting on the floor seems like there is quite a long way to go to have them join the table, again. It's a good idea to have a family plan such as eating at the table during the week and in front of the television on one weekend night.
Interview by Brooke Hunter