In the quest to improve children’s diets, prevent childhood obesity and future chronic diseases like cancer, one of the mantras of dietitians and other health professionals is “eat meals together as a family.”
But, does this really help?
Results from previous studies and from a new study appear to say it does.
The researchers in the new study are observing over 75 families during mealtimes to see what factors may play a role in children’s eating behaviors – whether they are “fussy” or open to new foods. The initial results, presented this week at a psychology conference in the UK, show that friendly interaction, rather than pressure, may be more effective in encouraging children to try new foods.
Although these results are tentative and not yet published, they do mirror what I’ve seen in my work with young adults. I found that my clients who had healthy attitudes about food and better eating habits usually had parents with healthy attitudes and behaviors, and they tended to be relaxed about food and eating in their home.
A 2010 report by the American Dietetic Association Foundation showed that parents have more potential to influence their children’s behavior, including their eating habits, than anyone else. And, the report says, there has been a significant increase in daily family meals eaten at home, from 52 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2010.
A large meta-analysis from March 2011 looking at effects of family meals on children’s and teen’s nutritional health found that kids who share family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than 3 family meals together. In addition, they are less likely to engage in disordered eating.
I think this is good news for parents. Focusing on three things appears to be a great start to putting your child on a healthy track:
1. Sit down to family meals at least a few times per week.
2. Model healthy eating behavior – try new foods and include a variety of foods in meals over time.
3. Keep meal times relaxed and avoid pressuring kids to eat.
Families do face challenges in sitting down to meals at home – time is one barrier. So, we’ve developed 5 meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes — each costing only about $6 each. You can find these meals and prep instructions here.
How often do you sit down to family meals? And please, share your strategies and menus with us.