Bobby reached another nutrition milestone this past Sunday dinner. My husband and I were eating turkey meatloaf with brussel sprouts and butternut squash. Bobby was insisting on his typical macaroni and cheese (whole wheat noodles with chopped spinach mixed in). I, of course was making the macaroni but it was not yet ready. I decided to offer Bobby the turkey meatloaf since he was hungry. I plated it with ketchup and he dipped right in. Phew. Bobby said it was spicy. Hum? I tried it myself and it was oddly spicy tasting with the ketchup. I agreed with him and asked him to try it dry. Amazingly he was willing to try and guess what, he loved it. He ate an entire slice in addition to his macaroni with cheese and spinach.
Despite having limited family meals due to our crazy city life, we do have them when we can. As evidenced by this experience, family meals are beneficial even if they are not as often as experts recommend. Read my nutrition assistant’s Family Meals blog entry below. Happy Eating!
Family Meals: A Benefit for the Whole Family
By Nutrition Student Katherine Kaczor
From running back and forth to soccer practice, dance recitals, piano lessons, and maybe even back to another soccer practice, it can be difficult for many families to sit down and have a meal together. But could you be doing a disservice to your family by missing out on this mealtime?
Research indicates that family meals have an impact during all stages of life. For toddlers, it is a time to learn healthy food behaviors. If the parent or other family member eat a balanced, healthy plate, the toddler will be more likely to pick up the behavior as well. However, if family members are consistently saying they don’t like carrots or peas taste gross, the toddler will be more likely to feel the same. Family meals can also help toddlers overcome their picky eating. If the toddler is served a similar meal to the rest of the family, he will be continually exposed to new foods. By repeatedly being offered different foods, the toddler will be more likely to incorporate them into his diet.
Family meals have a strong influence on school-aged children as well. Children who have a least three family meals per week are 12% less likely to be overweight, 20% less likely to consume unhealthy foods, and 24% more likely to consume healthy foods, according to one study. Another study found that family meals are protective against obesity in non-Hispanic white and black children, but can promote obesity in Hispanic boys, especially in low-income families. This is likely due to the food served and the cultural differences amongst these families. If the family is sitting down to a meal of fried foods and the children are encouraged to finish their plate and get seconds, weight is likely to increase. Despite this, family meals have the added benefit of providing children with an outlet to discuss their day. It gives them a chance to discuss the art project they worked on in class or the field trip they’re going on next week. This conversation helps build the family relationship. Family meals can also be used to create a sense of responsibility in children. They can be assigned chores such setting the table or washing the dishes. If the child is picky, having him assist with the cooking process can help him feel more connected to the food and consequently more likely to eat it.
The most research in regards to family meals looks at its effects on adolescents. Due in part to their increased independence as well as from the constant peer pressure, the eating habits of adolescents tend to be poor, however, those adolescents who regularly dine with their family tend to have better intakes. They are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and to incorporate dairy into their diet. They are also more likely to eat breakfast. Teenagers also tend to consume fast-food when meals are not provided at home. Additionally, disordered eating habits are significantly lower in adolescent girls who had regular family meals. Research has found that disordered eating habits are seen in 18.1% of girls who had less than two family meals per week, while it was seen in only 8.8% of girls who had more than three family meals per week. However, this was based on the assumption that the families were modeling healthy eating behaviors. If the parents follow strict diets or continually comment on the adolescent’s eating patterns, family meals are likely to have the reverse effect. Family meals have also been linked to a reduced risk for drug and substance abuse in teenage girls; however the effects on existing users are minimal. Overall, meals with your teenager help maintain the family relationship during this time of transition. It helps you keep tabs on them while they experience new independence and learn who they are in the world.
There are also benefits for the parents. If the parents are being positive role models for their children, their health status will also benefit from family meals. Instead of picking up a cheeseburger and fries on the way home from work, family meals provide the opportunity for a well-balanced dinner, which may help promote health and longevity for themselves. Whatever makes up your dish, family meals provide a time for family bonding and can help strengthen communication and relationships.
Hammons, A., & Fiese, B. (2011). Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents?. Pediatrics, 127(6), e1565-e1574.
Neumark-Sztainer, D., Wall, M., Story, M., & Fulkerson, J. (2004). Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents?. The Journal of Adolescent Health: Official Publication of The Society For Adolescent Medicine, 35(5), 350-359.
Rollins, B. Y., Belue, R. Z., & Francis, L. A. (2010). The Beneficial Effect of Family Meals on Obesity Differs by Race, Sex, and Household Education: The National Survey of Children’s Health, 2003-2004. Journal of The American Dietetic Association, 110(9), 1335-1339.
Videon, T., & Manning, C. (2003). Influences on adolescent eating patterns: the importance of family meals. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32(5), 365-373.
White, J., & Halliwell, E. (2011). Family Meal Frequency and Alcohol and Tobacco Use in Adolescence: Testing Reciprocal Effects. Journal of Early Adolescence, 31(5), 735-749.