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It might be time to replace the dinner bell with an alarm. Only about one-quarter of families with children sit down to dinner together every night, according to a 2013 Harris Interactive poll. And it’s not just the family bond that’s being threatened: Children who don’t eat with their families are more likely to become obese later in life, according to a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The researchers analyzed data from the Project Eating and Activity in Teens study, which tracked the dining habits and body mass index (BMI) of middle- and high-school students, then followed up again 10 years later when they were young adults. After a decade, more than half of the 2,117 study participants were overweight or obese — and their childhood frequency of family meals emerged as a significant factor in their weight-gain trajectory.
Specifically, the young adults who’d eaten just one or two family meals a week as kids were 45 percent less likely to be overweight, compared to those who never dined with their parents. (The decrease in the risk of obesity associated with eating one or two family meals per week was not significant.) More proved to be better: Sitting down to three to four family meals per week reduced the kids’ odds of full-blown obesity by half.
What’s being served at those family sit downs may play a role. Past research has linked a higher frequency of family meals with greater intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; that may be because more forethought goes into family dinners. “You sit down and think, ‘What could I serve?’” said study author Jerica Berge, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. “So you’re more likely to put a fruit and a vegetable on the table.”
However, the study didn’t ask the kids what they were eating, so a family meal could have meant takeout. “We don’t know if [the meals] were all home-cooked,” Berge acknowledged. That means other factors, like the family connection that mealtimes foster, are likely at play. “[Family meals] present a safe, predictable environment where you can talk with family members,” she told Yahoo Health. That sense of stability may give kids a greater sense of control in daily life, helping them regulate their emotions, as well as their food intake.
And when dinner is grilled chicken and green beans? By watching parents eat — and enjoy — children may feel encouraged to do the same, even when they’re deciding what to eat on their own, said Berge. “Parents are modeling communication and how to connect with one another, as well as modeling healthy eating and recognizing satiety cues,” she said. “Hopefully, parents are showing kids that they listen to their bodies about when to stop.”
To make the most of your family meals, follow Berge’s advice for turning dinnertime into an opportunity for healthy living:
Three or four weekly meals as a family are better than one or two—but if your schedule only allows Sunday night dinner, say, that’s better than none. “Even one family meal has some effect, protecting against [becoming] overweight,” said Berge. “So that’s a great place to start.” Aim to make it a can’t-miss appointment: Jot it down on the calendar, and tell your kids (and spouse) it’s non-negotiable.
Think beyond dinner
Dinner is the classic time for togetherness, but it’s not the only way your family can connect over a meal. If breakfast or lunch is more convenient for your clan, consider making those mealtimes your family’s main focus, suggested Berge.
Banish smartphones, tablets, and TV’s from the table — that way, you can really focus on promoting conservation and connection, said Berge. Dinner should be about talking…not catching up on emails.
Save the serious discussions for another time. “Try to make it a positive atmosphere; don’t use it as a place to lecture or vent about getting homework done,” Berge advised. Her advice: Have each family member share a high and low for the day. That way, the experience is about connection, not discipline, and your kids will be more willing to come back to the table night after night.
Keep it together
Institute a new family rule: No one eats alone. So if your high-schooler gets home late after practice, make a point to sit down with him or her during a meal, even if the rest of the family can’t join in. “That’s a great way to make the meal count as more than ‘just get food in the person,’” Berge told Yahoo Health.