Family Meals Encourage Healthy Eating

Many families are on the run, stopping at a drive-thru between soccer practice and piano lessons. Other families may leave a pot on the stove, but it’s up to each person to grab their food and head off to different corners of the house to settle in front of their favorite TV show.

Whatever your family’s normal pattern of meals, scientists have published findings in the journal Pediatrics that may cause many families to reassess their mealtime habits and find new ways to eat together.

The study from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign showed that families that eat dinner together regularly tend to exhibit better health, a lower risk of becoming obese and show better overall healthy eating habits. The researchers indicated that eating meals together regularly equates to at least three meals per week.

In addition, children who frequently share meals with their families lower their risk for disordered eating, which is a pattern of behaviors that can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Led by Amber J. Hammons, PhD, and Barbara H. Fiese, PhD, the researchers studied findings of 17 studies on child nutrition that involved a total of over 182,000 kids, including teenagers. The authors report that this is the first study to show evidence of a link between shared family meals and nutritional health in children.

Dr. Hammons explained that families who eat even more meals together, five or more, have children who are approximately 25 percent less likely to exhibit nutritional problems than kids who eat a maximum of one meal per week with their families. Shared family meals play a role in protecting kids from unhealthy eating, such as disordered eating patterns.

In children who shared a family meal five times a week, there was evidence that the children had a 35 percent lower chance of exhibiting disordered eating patterns compared to other kids. Disordered eating includes bingeing/purging, deliberate vomiting, fasting, missing meals, using diuretics, and other types of behaviors.

The authors explain that mealtimes may provide a setting where parents can catch early signs of an eating disorder developing and discuss it with their child before it becomes a full eating disorder. Meals also predict family-connectedness, which may provide adolescents a way to discuss such issues in a safe environment.

Several of the studies analyzed examined the weight status of families. Those families that ate together at least three times per week had a 12 percent lower risk of being overweight.

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