Even though I like to think of myself as reasonably progressive, the reality is that when it comes to eating, I’m a traditionalist at heart. This does not just mean eating a diet based on natural, unprocessed food, but also refers to how this food is eaten. In particular, I’m fan of family meals, as research (see 22 June 2003 article below) has linked these to better nutrition including greater intake of health foods and reduced consumption of junk.
Studies have also shown that the eating of family meals is also linked with greater food awareness and knowledge. One might suppose that this factor, coupled with greater exposure and habitual intake of healthy food, might lead individuals to retain healthier eating habits in the future too.
The concept of whether family meals may have lasting benefit in terms of eating habits was tested recently by a group of researchers based in Minnesota, USA. The researchers assessed the eating habits of a group of about 1700 adolescents with an average age of just under 16. They assessed this group again five years later (once their average age was 20.
At this age, those who ate more meals with their family reported eating more fruit and vegetables, and had a higher intake of important nutrients including potassium and magnesium. In addition, their intake of soft drinks was lower too.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a higher incidence of family meals was associated with increased priority for social eating. It also was associated with greater likelihood of an evening meal being eaten.
All-in-all, this study adds further evidence to the existing body of research which suggests that, when it comes to healthy eating, it pays to make meals a family affair.
Larson, NI, et al. Family Meals during Adolescence Are Associated with Higher Diet Quality and Healthful Meal Patterns during Young Adulthood. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2007;107(9):1502-1510
The benefits of eating family meals – 22 June 2003
While I am enthusiastic about the potential for a healthy diet to promote vibrant health and well-being, I am also of the opinion that there are other reasons for consuming food that go way beyond its nutritional merits. Eating, after all, can be an intensely pleasurable experience, which is something even I am keen to bear in mind when dispensing dietary advice. Food can act as a social glue too: a shared meal is an ideal opportunity to chew the cud with others, which I reckon can be no bad thing in a society where early morning solo breakfasts, brown-bagging it, and TV dinners are so often the orders of the day.
One arena where I believe communal eating has special significance is the family home. Mealtimes offer the opportunity for households to punctuate their oh-so busy days with a spot of ‘quality time’. Making meals a family affair can help harmonise relations, but I can’t resist pointing out that it is likely to have nutritional benefits too. Left to their own devises, youngsters with limited budgets will almost inevitably gravitate to fast food rarely brimming with nutrients. It stands to reason that meals had in the home will generally provide children with healthier fare than that had on the street.
The findings of two very recent studies have supported the notion that eating meals out of out and home can have significant nutritional consequences for children and adolescents. In one, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the frequency of family meals and quality of the overall diet were assessed in almost 5000 children. More frequent family meals were found to be associated with an increased intake of healthy foods including fruits and vegetables, and a more modest consumption of soft drinks (which by the way have strong links with obesity in kids). Children eating more meals with the family were found to have generally higher intakes of protein and calcium (important dietary elements for growing boys and girls), as well as other key nutrients including iron, folate, and vitamins A, C, E.
Another recent study, this time published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, also found that eating evening meals at home was associated with an increased consumption of fruit and veg, and healthier eating habits overall. Interestingly, this study also discovered that parental participation at the evening meal seemed to increase the likelihood of children eating breakfast the following morning. Why this should be is not known for sure, but it’s significant because there is evidence that having breakfast may boost mental powers, and has been linked with improved scholastic performance.
Yet another benefit of the family meal is that it appears to have the capacity to instil some food awareness in children. At least two studies have found that the more frequent family dinners are, the more likely kids are to discuss and gain learning about matters of a nutritional nature. Another study found that adolescents reported feeling more confident about making healthy food choices at family meals, rather than at other eating opportunities. It seems that when it comes to giving children all the benefits food has to offer, there really is no place like home.