Monday, February 21, 2011

The amazing benefits of the family meal

Photo credit: Michelle Loy. Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

Almost five years ago, my husband and I traveled to Thailand where we met some of my family for the very first time.  We only knew a few basic Thai phrases, like "Hello!", "Thank You!", and "Where's the bathroom?".  My family there knew little English, so communicating was a challenge.  Let's just say we did a lot of smiling, which is not unusual in the "Land of Smiles".  One of the first activities that we did after arriving was share a meal together, and that is when the magic happened.  We connected.  Although my mom had to do a lot of translating for us, the food and the meal was helping us connect.  This meal offered me a fantastic glimpse into part of my Thai heritage as my family members enjoyed telling us about their favorite Thai dishes along with other great stories.  Family meals definitely offer a time to bond, and I love them for that.  As a dietitian and mother of two, I also love them for other reasons, too.

Family meals present an opportunity to build a legacy of health with our children.  Studies suggest that children and teens who regularly participate in family meals have higher quality diets.  Routine family meals are also associated with greater intakes of vegetables and fruits and lower intakes of fried foods, sodas, and trans fats.  Plus, family meals may also help lower the risk of overweight and reduce disordered eating behaviors in adolescents.  Researchers also propose that regular family meals during childhood and adolescence have a positive, lasting effect into young adulthood.

Family meals present an opportunity for parents to model positive eating behaviors and food intake to their children.  In fact, studies have exhibited a positive relationship between children's vegetable and fruit intake and parental modeling. Parents have a very strong influence on children's food preferences, even into adolescence. They learn by watching you!

Family meals present an opportunity for parents to discuss nutrition and healthy eating.  While I don't plan nutrition lectures for my kids at meal time, I definitely discover teachable moments during which I am able to share some positive (and age-appropriate) nutrition education with my children.  In fact, my daughter often enjoys asking my husband and I how certain foods will help her body grow.  While light and fun, it's still informative and will shape her attitudes and behaviors towards food and eating later on down the road.

Family meals present an opportunity for parents to share their skills in meal planning and preparation.  Unfortunately, one poll found that almost half of all families did not prepare the previous night's meal from scratch.  Children who participate in meal planning and preparation tend to have higher quality diets than those who do not.  This could be because families who do not prepare meals from scratch are likely relying on ready-made foods, fast food, take-out or delivery, and these foods are typically not the most nutritious.  Also, if meals aren't being prepared from scratch at home, then how will children learn valuable culinary skills or how to enjoy meal planning and prep? Not only will engaging children in meal planning and preparation enhance their kitchen wisdom, but it also allows them a chance to learn about food and culture. They will also develop their motor skills along with their knowledge in areas, such as reading and math.  When cooking, I give my children age-appropriate activities to do, and they love it.  If you need some ideas on where to start with your own kids, you may want to check out this link from PBS.

Regular family meals are also associated with numerous other benefits, including:  lower rates of smoking, drinking, drug use, depression, suicide ideation, delayed sexual activity, and greater academic success. It appears that family meal time offers parents the opportunity to talk about activities and issues that are affecting their children.  It offers children the chance to get two of the things they want most from their parents: time and attention.

Isn't it amazing that a seemingly simple activity can have such a profound affect on a child's health and well-being?  The latest guidelines recommend that families share meals together at least 4-5 times a week. If your family is already there, kudos to you.  If you'd like to make it more of a priority, then you may want to check out this tip sheet "Enjoying the Family Meal" for ideas on how to get started.  Whatever you do, don't pass up this wonderful opportunity to change your family tree for the better.

What do you enjoy about family meals?  How do you make them a priority in your home?  


Yates said...[Reply to comment]

Meagan and I try to eat dinner together every night. We usually end up eating around the time the 6 o'clock news comes on. We talk about our day and see what is going on in the news. I think that enjoying this time together is a great benefit to us and our relationship.

Michelle Loy, MPH, MS, RD said...[Reply to comment]

@YatesThat's awesome!

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