Dinner with the kids: Family meals improve well-being, bonding and even grades

Parents Cheryl Wee and Roy Fong with their children (from left) Emma, Elly and Marc having a meal at home. The couple aim to have dinner with their kids almost every day. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


JAN 15, 2024
Venessa Lee


SINGAPORE – Ms Cheryl Wee and her husband Roy Fong, both 36, make it a point to have dinner with their three young children almost every day.

They even involve their kids in preparing meals.

On regular Japanese-themed nights, they guide Marc, five, Emma, four, and Elly, two, in making handrolls and onigiri (Japanese rice balls), using fillings such as homemade tamago, a type of Japanese omelette.

The rice rolls complement a dinner spread with Japanese dishes like teriyaki chicken.

In addition, Ms Wee often makes waffles and cookies with her children and takes them to the wet market.

Dinner time helps the family grow closer and provides an opportunity to impart values, says Ms Wee, a wellness entrepreneur and a council member for Families for Life, a movement that promotes resilient families.

“We make it more engaging for them. With most young kids, eating is not a priority,” says the founder of Cheryl W Wellness and Weight Management, who is also the operations director for the Jean Yip Group’s beauty division.

The group, eponymously named after Ms Wee’s mother, is known for its hair and beauty salons.

Ms Wee adds that inculcating “small habits” such as saying grace before meals highlights the value of gratitude, while she and her husband also remind their children not to waste food.

The weekly grocery run shows the youngsters that it takes effort to produce a meal for the family.

Mr Fong, operations director for Jean Yip Developments, the property arm of Jean Yip Group, says: “Mealtimes are when you can build trust over time and, hopefully, this will carry through to adolescence and beyond. The kids must feel comfortable with us and not feel that they are being judged.”


Better grades through eating together

The couple are hitting the mark when it comes to family meals together, according to parenting experts.

Counsellor Phoebe Wong, from the Families for Life @ Communities department of Fei Yue Community Services, says: “Establishing family rituals, like a special dish on certain days or themed dinner nights, can create something for the family to look forward to.”


Marc Fong, 5, making a California roll. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Involving children in meal preparation teaches them life skills, fosters bonding and encourages a sense of responsibility and teamwork as they contribute towards the meal in age-appropriate ways, she adds.

According to the findings of an international study, released in December 2023, higher-performing students reported that their families regularly ate their main meal together, or spent time talking with them or asking them what they did in school.

The survey was a follow-up to a Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study in 2022 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The Pisa study, usually done every three years, measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

“Pisa results show that, for adolescents, even seemingly innocuous activities, like sharing a family meal or just talking together, are strongly associated with student performance and well-being,” the report said.

Fewer than half the Singapore students polled in the recent survey – 47 per cent – said their parents ask them at least once a week about any problems they might have at school, compared with the OECD average of 57 per cent.

This is despite close to nine in 10 of them reporting that they eat their main meal with their parents at least once a week, the survey found.


Connect, don’t correct

Mealtimes should be associated with a positive atmosphere, says Mr James Satchy, acting head of Touch Parenting, Touch Community Services.

He adds: “You want to associate eating as a family with pleasant memories. Every time you come to the table, you should be thinking of connecting, more than correcting.”

For instance, dinner may not be the appropriate time to discuss heavier topics, such as how a child can improve in school or concerns that might have been raised at a parent-teacher meeting, he says.

Ms Wong suggests a two-prong approach.

It is fine to show interest in a child’s school life during dinner, but keep the atmosphere “light and supportive”, which builds trust, she says. This makes it more likely that kids will open up about serious issues later.

“For instance, parents can gently inquire about how the child is feeling about school, any ongoing projects, or his or her general well-being. This keeps the conversation casual yet attentive,” says Ms Wong.

“More in-depth discussions about serious school-related issues should ideally take place outside mealtimes. This helps to avoid associating family meals with stress or anxiety. Set aside a specific time when the child feels relaxed and open to dialogue, ensuring that the setting is private and free from distractions.”

To encourage a supportive environment during meals, parents should be mindful of the pressures they may feel and avoid harsh criticism or a disapproving tone of voice, says Mr Satchy.

“Time pressure can cause dinner time to be stressful,” he says.

For example, parents may feel pressed for time when they and their children still have to plough through one or two hours of homework after dinner at 7.30pm.

Other pressures include parental worries that the children are not eating enough vegetables – and the corresponding urge to make them finish their greens – or that they have undesirable table manners which need correcting.

Ms Gayatri Devi, a social worker at Singapore Indian Development Association, advocates encouraging children to share as much as they want at table conversations.

A young child may take a bit of time getting to the point while recounting a story of how he gave a plaster to a classmate who skinned her knee during recess, for instance.

“Don’t stifle their conversation patterns and openly show appreciation and praise, even if it’s a small action,” she says.


Mealtimes should be associated with a positive atmosphere. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


She adds that older children in their teens, who may sometimes be laconic in their conversation, may want to engage in the conversation, so as not to feel left out.

Mr Shaun Liu, a trainer at the family wellness division at Morning Star Community Services, encourages parents to prepare conversation topics beforehand if necessary, to ensure that the dinner table is a safe and supportive space.

Make sure all devices are put away, so that both parents and children are fully present at dinner time, he says.

Mr Liu also urges parents to be open and non-judgmental while listening to their children.

“Questions should be open-ended, rather than solicit ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, where the conversation ends fast,” he adds.

For example, everyone can share one highlight of the day, he says.

Mr Liu suggests conversation starters such as “What was the best part of your day?” or “If you can have dinner with anyone right now, who might that be?”

The key for parents is not to have “unrealistic expectations”, especially if you have not paid much attention to dinner time before, he says.

“Don’t expect everyone to sit still and not want to watch TV, or for there to be no disagreements or quarrels,” says Mr Liu. “It is not only about removing distractions. Bonding over dinner conversations as a family can take time.”


How to have dinner conversations with kids of different ages

Ms Wong suggests conversation techniques by age group.

Pre-school and younger: Very young children do well with simple and direct questions, such as “Who did you sit with at lunch?”, she says.

“Be playful: Turn the conversation into a game, like guessing the colour of the snack they had.”

Lower primary: Children who are in lower-primary school, aged seven to nine, may benefit from open-ended questions that have a specific focus: “What was the most interesting thing you learnt today?”

She urges parents to start a conversation based on their interests and use positive reinforcement with phrases like “That sounds exciting”.

Tweens: Those aged 10 to 12 may be more open if parents “engage in their world”, says Ms Wong, such as by showing interest in their social circle and activities. Encourage them to share their thoughts on a school event or book they read, she adds.

Teenagers: Older kids may be more amenable to conversational strategies such as sharing your experiences that relate to theirs, but avoiding parental lectures.

A joke can sometimes break the ice and encourage more talkative responses with teens, she says.

Alternatively, involve teens in decision-making by asking for their opinions on family plans, which reinforces their sense of maturity, she says.

What about handling an all-too-common problem: monosyllabic answers?

Ms Wong suggests “reflecting and rephrasing” bits of conversation: “You had a quiz? Tell me more about it.”

Give children time to relax into the conversation, she says. “Sometimes, children need to switch gears from school mode to home mode. Don’t force the conversation. Let it happen naturally.”

Parents can consider sharing first.

“Sometimes, sharing something about your day can prompt the children to share about theirs,” she says.

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