Family Meals: The importance of eating together
Eating together as a family is associated with many positive outcomes for children, including the establishment of healthy eating habits. Highlighting the importance of the family meal and promoting its positive outcomes to parents may help them to serve as positive role models, valuing the family meal and implementing it more frequently. In this way, parents can pass on dietary, physical and psychological influences to their children.
Family meals are associated with healthy dietary habits. Compared with those who do not often eat together, children who have frequent family meals are more likely to have breakfast and to eat more healthy nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products.
Furthermore, children who eat few meals together as a family eat more fast foods, sugary drinks and saturated fats than those who have frequent family meals. Family meals during childhood and adolescence appear to have a positive, sustained impact on dietary intake into young adulthood.
Family meals are associated with positive psychological outcomes. The family meal environment, with the associated interactions between parents and children, is linked to improvements in academic achievements, self-esteem, and a lower likelihood of substance abuse, depression and violence. Frequent family meals may also protect against disordered eating behaviours. Psychosocial benefits include improved perceptions of family relationships.
Family meals are relevant for the prevention of childhood obesity. Regular family meals allow parents to provide their children with new and nutritious foods, and also allow them to monitor and limit the children’s intake of unhealthy foods, with parents serving as role models for healthy eating behaviours. By supporting these healthy eating behaviours, more frequent family meals may lead to reduced risk of excess weight gain and obesity in children.
Eating together: context matters
Eating together but with distractions such as television and other electronic devices affects the way families communicate, especially during meal times, and is associated with a poorer diet quality in children. Childhood overweight and obesity have been associated with a lack of family rules around mealtime behaviour, parents who are overweight and parents who work full-time.
The number of family meals eaten together has steadily declined since the 1960s. Available studies suggest that the frequency of family meals has reduced over time and is continuing to fall. Busy schedules and stressful lives are associated with fewer family meals. Working parents tend to have fewer family meals. This is a modern-day problem as they also spend less time preparing meals and are more likely to serve easy-to-prepare or fast food options to their children.
Source: Danone Institute International
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