Breaking bread together is one of the oldest traditions in human history. At a birthday party or holiday gathering, we congregate around the food. But it’s not necessarily the food itself that we’re drawn to; it’s how wonderfully comforting it feels to enjoy that food together. When we sit around a table, sharing tasty dishes and laughing over meaningful conversation, we feel really, really good.
Yet for those of us with children, meals can often be stressful daily events, filled with picky eating, exhaustive bargaining, bad moods, and worse behavior. When those big tears are rolling down their yogurt-smeared faces, and they’re clenching their little fists because they want to be done, we tell them no one’s getting up from the table until they’ve had one more bite. And no one gets up from that table feeling good. We end the meal in a collective dysregulated state, souring our moods and our stomachs.
But what if our children loved mealtime? What if it were… fun? From the perspective of Nurture Science, mealtime is not a time to scarf down our daily calories: it’s a pathway to deep emotional connection. By reframing our approach to mealtime, we not only reconnect and enjoy each other as a family, we also engage in a fundamental practice that supports our physical and emotional health, and nurtures our children’s development—in body, brain, and behavior.
It’s called autonomic co-regulation, and it shifts us into our optimal state for health and resilience. But as you may have guessed from the “co” in its name, we can’t do it alone: we connect with each other emotionally while engaging in activities that mutually stimulate our five senses. This sensory-emotional experience puts us in a deeply calming state, where we enjoy the many juicy benefits of co-regulation, like boosting our mood, heart health, brain function, and immune response (for starters).
This might be why the single most important predictor of success in school is family mealtimes. Routine is important, but it matters less that children eat at the same time every day, and more that you all eat together, even if it means waiting until closer to bedtime. (In fact, when dinner is an emotionally-connected event, it helps everyone relax and primes the body for deep sleep.)
You can make nearly any joint activity co-regulatory, but mealtime is a perfect opportunity because it’s inherently sensory, and we already do it multiple times a day. One of the primary systems co-regulation works on is digestion, so when you create a healthy emotional environment for mealtime, you’re positively conditioning your children toward necessary nutrition, a healthy relationship to eating, and happy social interaction.
But we’re all human, and sometimes life gets messy. When things go south and dinner is stressful, it’s important to know that no one is at fault—not you, and not your yogurt-smeared kid. The physiology of stress takes our emotions and behavior hostage. We adults can muscle through, but our children haven’t yet learned to separate their big feelings from their behavior. That’s why reasoning with them rarely works. So when kids are all worked up, the fastest way to help them weather the emotional (and often behavioral) tornado happening inside them is to target the stress in their body, not their brain. In other words, to co-regulate with them by turning mealtime into a relaxing activity that helps everyone connect and calm.
Here are some tips:
- Give each other sensory gifts: holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes is a lovely way to connect, whether you say grace or not. A pre-dinner hug, or singing a favorite song could become part of your mealtime routine.
- Conversation around the table is so important: When parents and children are co-regulated, children talk more and become better listeners. Take turns talking, listening, and chewing—this give and take is relaxing. When we’re relaxed, eating is intensely pleasurable.
- Allow yourselves to really savor all the flavors, textures, and aromas. Indulge in the sensory experience together.
If Your Child Struggles with Mealtime:
- Try slowing down beforehand—rushing into a meal is dysregulating, so their (and your) physical and emotional state may need to calm before eating.
- Anger is inflammatory to the gut; feeling calm allows us to digest.
- Avoid giving children negative attention around not eating. Rather than making them sit until they’ve finished (associating eating with anger or frustration), try taking a break: put them on your lap at the dinner table, or sit on the couch, snuggle, talk, calm down, then re-approach eating once you’re connected.
- “Picky eating” narrows food choice, which is sickness behavior (when you’re sick, you only want a small selection of foods). If your child is a picky eater, there may be something going on in their gut. Co-regulation is healing to the gut, so by changing a child’s environment to one of connection, we can improve their gut health and help them expand their range of foods.
- This goes for adults, too! When we’re upset, we either don’t feel like eating or we reach for foods that are inflammatory (you don’t crave a salad when you’re frustrated; you want a donut). Oxytocin, (a hormone of co-regulation), is anti-inflammatory and promotes healthy gut function. Co-calming allows our physiology to tell us to make healthier choices.
How we eat has as much (if not more) of an impact on our health as what we eat. We could eat in silence, or stressed, or even frustrated with each other. But it feels terrible. Co-regulation feels wonderful, and it’s available to everyone. It also turns out to be crucial for our health, and essential for our children’s development. Remember that it’s a practice—as you continue engaging your senses and emotions together, you’ll figure out all the beautiful and unique ways your family likes to connect, and incorporate those into your routine. Listen to each other’s bodies. Savor all the benefits you’re getting—if it feels good, you’re doing it right.