A review of studies about family meals indicates that frequent family meals are not only associated with better nutritional value and meal structure, but also many positive psychosocial outcomes. Shared family meals have higher intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber as well as less intake of sugary beverages. Studies also show that family meals are associated with lower risk for childhood obesity.
Family meals are positively associated with increased self-esteem and school success. Frequent family meals are associated with less frequent eating disordered behaviors, alcohol and substance abuse, violent behavior and feelings of depression and suicide. Those benefits are hard to beat!
As part of the Prescription for Healthy Active Living, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends preparing meals at home as often as possible and eating family meals 5-6 times per week. Similar to other behavior patterns and priorities such as ignoring temper tantrums and establishing healthy sleep habits, it is easier to establish your family healthy meal habits early on. A lot of role modeling and social conversation happens at the table, so it makes sense to gather ‘round the table as soon as your child is eating meals. This practice might bring about a change in adult eating patterns (earlier dinners, more regular meals, more meal planning) which will most likely benefit the whole family. Of course, shared meals will not happen every night, but it is a good idea to keep the intention on the front burner!
Add some special ideas to keep your family meals enticing. You do not have to wait for a birthday to light candles. As described in Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa Ross, children should have candlelight every day. Why not light “fire fairies” at the dinner table as a routine part of your mealtime? Other ideas to keep your shared meals inviting include setting a nice table with a tablecloth or fun placemats (or have a picnic), or set some funny rules throughout the meal (eat with only 1 hand, sing songs or make up rhymes for the whole meal!). Keep a family box of funny conversation topics and pick from the box to spice up the conversation!
Nutrition tips for shared meals:
Do not be a short order cook – you provide and your child decides what to eat.
Offer several food groups at each meal
Watch portion size – second helpings should just be fruits and vegetables.
Include high fiber foods (at least 3 grams of fiber per serving).
Encourage desired behaviors – catch ‘em being good!
Discourage undesired behaviors – ignore temper tantrums, calmly take your child down from the table if she/he throws food.
Be consistent – you can always make up for a bad meal with a planned out healthy snack if your child misses a meal related to undesired behavior issues.
Our goals for families are to share healthy meals, encourage healthy sleep patterns, read together, ensure good role models, be active daily, and help parents balance work and home life! Piecing this together is a challenge all families encounter. It is a lot to ask from a family, but families and friends can learn from each other. It may also be helpful to reach out to other professionals to help develop effective strategies. It is definitely a work in progress for a lifetime!
Recipes for Fun: Meal Related Activities Combined with Family Friendly Recipe Ideas
Activity: Go to a local farmer’s market and let your children pick a fruit that they have never eaten, along with other preferred fruits.
Recipe: Go home, cut it all up and serve!
Activity: Go to the grocery store and pick out toppings for pancakes (berries, yogurt, syrup, sprinkles).
Recipe: Toast 1 cup of steel cut oats in a pan, then put in blender. Combine blended oats with 1 cup of flour, 2 cups of buttermilk, 2 eggs, 2 T brown sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp baking soda and ½ tsp baking powder and make pancakes!
Activity: Go strawberry picking
Recipe: In a blender or food processor, puree 1 pound of strawberries, add some sugar to taste, add ½ cup heavy cream, fill popsicle molds, add sticks, and then transfer to the freezer overnight. Enjoy popsicles the next day!
Activity: Grow greens in your garden (kale, collards, spinach, chard) in a pot on your porch or even in a window box. Add your own greens to your other favorite salad ingredients
Recipe: Combine oil and vinegar (twice as much vinegar vs oil), add seasonal herbs (that is the secret part!).
Activity: Make tortillas*
Recipe idea: Mash together avocado, tomato, onion or green onion, salt, and any of your other favorite ingredients.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stack tortillas and use kitchen scissors to cut into 4 pieces like cutting up a pizza.
Spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet at least 1/4 “ apart.
Season with salt or other desired toppings (chili powder, cumin, pepper, cheese).
Bake 8-12 minutes or until chips start to get crispy and golden around the edges.
Remove from the oven and let them sit for 5-10 minutes to fully crispen.
Adapted from www.food.com
Fulkerson, JA, et al. A Review of associations between family or shared meal frequency and dietary and weight status outcomes across the lifespan. .Journal of
Nutrition Education and Behavior 2014:;46 (1): 2-19.
Harrison, M et al. Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian Family Physician. 2015; Vol 61:596-105.
Larson, et al. Family meals during adolescence are associated with highter diet quality and healthful meal patterns during young childhood. J Am Diet Assoc 2007; 107 (9): 1502-10.
Larson, etal. Eating breakfast and dinner together as a family: associations with sociodemographic characteristics and implications for diet quality and weight status. J Acad Nutr Diet 2013; 113 (12).
Bright Futures Guidelines, American Academy of Pediatrics. https://brightfutures.aap.org