Sharing meals around the family dinner table (and ideally without distractions like cell phones and television programming) has been linked to a wide range of benefits, including improving kids’ grades, saving money, and even discouraging drug use.
Researchers in the UK are ready to add another benefit to that list. They say family mealtime can help children increase their fruit and vegetable intake.
For the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, authors looked at the diets of more than 2,000 primary school children who attended 52 different schools across London. Using a questionnaire and food diary, researchers found the average child ate about 3.7 portions of fruits and vegetables per day – falling short of the 5-a-day goal recommended by the World Health Organization.
In families that reported they ate together “sometimes”, children ate more than a full serving of additional fruits and vegetables when compared to families that never ate together. Children who “always” ate family meals together ate an additional 1.5 servings every day.
“The results from this study illustrate a positive health message for parents, which could improve their own dietary habits and their children’s,” write the authors. “The key message… is for families to eat fruit and vegetables together at a mealtime.”
Eating together had the biggest impact overall, but other factors also helped. As you might imagine, children whose parents ate fruits and vegetables every day ate more, on average, than those whose parents rarely or never did so. Children whose parents cut up their fruits and vegetables for them also ate more than those who had to eat them without that help.
Around the Table
According to a recent Gallup survey:
“Fifty-three percent of adults with children younger than 18 say their family eats dinner together at home six or seven nights a week. The average 5.1 dinners that families share each week is down slightly from 5.4 in 1997, but unchanged from 2001. ”
That’s a good start. The US Department of Agriculture offers the following suggestions for making mealtime a family time:
- Start eating meals together as a family when your children are young and make it a habit.
- Plan when you will eat together as a family and put it on your calendar.
- Remember it’s okay if you can’t eat together every day. Try to have family meals most days of the week.
To make family meals enjoyable:
- Focus on the meal and each other. Turn off the TV and take phone calls or texts later.
- Encourage your child to try new foods (but don’t lecture or force him or her to eat).
- Involve everyone in the conversation. Ask questions like:
- What made you feel really happy today?
- What did you eat at lunch today?
- What’s your favorite veggie? Why?
- What made you laugh today?