A major new study has called into question the traditional view that family meal times should be enjoyed together around the dinner table if youngsters are to pick up good eating habits. Having children eat the same foods as grown-ups appears a more important guide to kids developing healthy eating habits.
The habit of eating family meals together rubs off as healthier eating habits for children, yet it is not clear what are the key reasons for this. Social bonding, parental pressure (“Eat your veggies or you aren’t allowed to leave the table”), and positive reinforcement of good nutrition messages all are plausible reasons.
Teasing out the link between family meals and eating habits in children, researchers from Scotland looked at the eating habits of 2,332 children aged around five. What they wanted to explore was the extent to which family meal occurrence, meal patterns and perceived meal enjoyment could predict the quality of children’s diets.
Eating the same as parents comes out on top
The clear predictor of healthy eating among children was eating the same food as the rest of the family and it didn’t matter if it was together or even at different times. Children were more likely to eat more fruit and vegetables, and less fatty and salt-laden foods and fewer snacks, than children fed “child-friendly” alternatives that the rest of family didn’t eat.
Other meal habits the researchers looked at such as infrequent meal times, frequent snacking between meals, eating in the living room or bedroom, and an unpleasant atmosphere during mealtimes only had a minor influence on the quality of children’s diets. It was eating the same food as the parents that counted most.
When children refuse to eat adult food during the family meal, it is a common coping strategy for parents to create separate and different child-friendly food alternatives. These alternative meals can often be of inferior nutritional value to the family meal. An example of this is the widespread phenomenon of ‘children’s menus’ at restaurants which are typically of poorer nutritional quality than adult equivalents.
What it all means
Eating meals together as a family has many benefits for the family unit. For young children though, they are nutritionally better-off eating the same food as everyone else at the table, rather than reverting to a ‘child friendly’ menu. For parents, eating healthier not only benefits them, but their kids as well.