As some sites have noted, having meals together as a family can be difficult. Work, school, hobbies, and other things can get in the way, reducing the time you have to plan, prepare, and cook a proper family meal. Yet, research has shown that family meals can have significant benefits: better diet quality for parents and children, better socioemotional development for kids, reduced likelihood of youth engaging in risky behaviors (e.g., smoking), less time spent sedentary, and lower rates of overweight and obesity in youth, just to name a few. With all of the benefits family meals can have, it’s worth putting in the effort to increase how often you have them. Improving your own eating habits can be a great start, and it can help you improve the eating habits of your children. Here are some tips supported by research to help establish a routine of eating family meals together, and to get the most benefit out of your family meals:
Make healthy options available: By simply making fruit, vegetables, and dairy more available, children and parents have been found to have higher intakes of these healthy foods. Reducing the availability of unhealthy items, such as soda, can help as well.
Consistently include healthy foods as part of family meals: Having vegetables as a regular part of dinner can help to establish long-term healthy eating habits in children. At least one study found that vegetables served during dinner predicted higher intakes of vegetables five years later.
Model a healthy diet: Improving your own diet can help your children learn more about what types of foods they should be eating, and it can help encourage them to try foods they may not otherwise be willing to try.
Make family meals a priority: Doing so will help encourage you to take the time to enjoy a family meal, and it teaches youth that mealtimes are important. Paired with the contents of the meal being healthy, children and adolescents will be more likely to take their own eating style more seriously.
Be present, not distracted: Turning off the TV during meals and engaging more helps to increase the likelihood of family meals having positive effects. (But, if watching TV is the only way to get the family together for a meal, it’s still better than not having a meal together at all).
Stay persistent over time: As children grow older and become teens, parents tend to encourage healthy eating less often, and teens begin to report having fewer meals with their families. Even though adolescents are more independent, continuing to encourage healthy eating and trying to prioritize family meals is important!
These are just some suggestions to help get you started on improving the diet quality of your family, and to help your children have a healthier future physically, socially, and mentally. If you’re interested in further tips, Project EAT (where most of these findings come from) is a great resource of scientific findings related to child and adolescent eating styles, family meals, and healthy habits: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/
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