The many gifts of family meals: Eat better, bond & prevent obesity

A new meta-analysis, including 200,000 people, finds that family meals help fight overweight and obesity in kids. The family meal offers a great opportunity to lead by example, communicate good habits and to enjoy healthier food

To avoid weight gain and eat better, eat in company

To avoid weight gain and eat better, eat in company

Eat-less-of and give-up-on diet advice is really sad to hear and tough to follow. We hate when things we like are taken away from us, especially when it comes to favorite treats like cookies, ice cream and French fries.

That’s why I’m fond of weight control advice that emphasizes what we should be doing more of, especially if that new habit can be pleasurable.

Here’s one of my favorites: To avoid weight gain and eat better, eat in company.

Losing weight is ever so hard. That’s why the focus, especially in kids, is on weight-gain prevention. The habits instilled at home are a protective shield; they act as the ongoing voice in kids’ head as they encounter the obesogenic food environment outside. Parents influence kids’ habits both by the foods they prepare, stock and serve at home, and by their own behavior and choices.

And the perfect setting for shaping kids’ choices is the family meal.

The importance of eating together

A new meta-analysis studied the relationship between family meals and children’s weight gain. A previous meta-analysis in Pediatrics found that shared meals were associated with better nutritional health in kids – healthier weight, healthier choices and fewer eating disorders. That analysis included 17 studies.

The current study, published in Obesity Reviews, included 57 studies and involved more than 200,000 participants, three times as many as the Pediatrics study.

Family meals were again associated with lower risk of being overweight, with a healthier diet, and with fewer unhealthy diet habits.

The study shows a correlation, but one can easily explain why family meals would actually cause better habits. Family meals are usually composed of more nutritious foods; when one eats alone they’re more likely to eat fast food or a prepared, microwavable meal. Eating together enables demonstration of good habits, role modeling and it fosters positive interaction.

But aren’t frequent family meals simply more common in better organized homes, in homes of a higher socioeconomic status? And if that’s so, don’t kids in these homes have better eating habits and less likelihood of obesity anyway?

Because this new analysis pooled many participants and studies together, the researchers could look specifically at the studies that controlled for socioeconomic status, and they found that even when controlling for socioeconomic status, more frequent family meals were correlated with better nutrition and weight status.

We’ll never be able to completely disentangle the fact that healthy tendencies and habits usually cluster: Families with positive relationships might eat together more, and parents who are more health conscious tend to eat meals in company. It’s hard to completely rule out random association and reverse causality – a positive family relationship might be the cause or the result of eating together.

But whether eating together conclusively causes better nutrition or not, eating together is a very good idea. The family meal offers a great opportunity to lead by example, to communicate good habits and to bond.

And it can be fun!

Tips and tricks for easy, healthy, enjoyable family meals

Not that it’s easy. With the stress of parents’ work, kids’ studies and extracurricular activities, and all the distractions pulling our attention, serving a nutritious meal and eating it together is no trivial matter.

I turned to several nutrition and parenting experts for their best tips.

Getting kids involved

Everyone agrees that getting kids involved increases their engagement and enthusiasm for the family meal, and with time, kids can become crucial helpers and take greater responsibility for the meal.

“When kids are engaged and feel like part of the process their excitement and interest dramatically grows. When picking out the fruits or veggies to buy or plant think BIG about color!  Kids react and connect with color.  Parents should also strive for the greatest amount of color at each meal as possible,” says nutritionist Danielle Girdano.

Eating the rainbow is a major theme in healthy kids meals. “Tell your children they know if they are eating healthy if they have a colorful plate! Would you like to color a picture with only brown and beige crayons?” asks cookbook author Holly Clegg. With three grown kids, five grandkids (and another on the way) she’s cooked many meals with kids, and knows that cooking makes kids more likely to try their own dishes. “Cooking teaches kids to follow directions, measurements teach math, and they have instant gratification when everyone eats their creation, ” the adds.

Certified Nutritionist Mary Delasantos is a big proponent of letting kids choose; her kids made selections when food shopping every weekend. “I set up some parameters on processed foods; for example: 1. A maximum of 3 grams of sugar per serving, 2. They needed to be able to pronounce the package ingredients, 3. The packaged food needed to have five ingredients or less. They had fun reading packages and discovering new foods they could make and eat.”

Melanie Potock, pediatric feeding expert and author of Adventures in Veggieland, suggests giving kids control over their plate, and when serving meals family style, to make sure every platter has a large serving spoon plus a regular teaspoon for scooping. “That way, kids can take a large helping or a small sample. Giving kids control over the amount of food that goes on their plate means that healthy foods end up on their plate, even if it's just one Brussels sprout to start! Remember, kids can always scoop more from the platter when they are ready.” 

Setting the right atmosphere

Pleasant conversation and an easy atmosphere are key to instilling good eating habits.

“Keep topics positive & discuss everything but food. It's a place for sharing your day and reconnecting as a family,” suggests registered dietitian Jodi Danen. "When your child realizes refusing foods gives them attention, they are more likely to continue refusing. Offer foods, let children decide what to eat from the choices offered. Don't argue or badger them to eat," she concludes.

“Family dinners are about family more than anything else!” says Melanie Potock. “Focus on your time together, not the bite. Research shows that a relaxed atmosphere combined with healthy offerings is what gets kids to try wholesome, healthy foods.”

Pressuring kids to eat is both unpleasant and counterproductive, studies show, but knowledge of food can engage kids and increase their interest. Danielle Girdano 'sells' veggies through stories: “Explaining how a particular veggie got from the farm to the table can be a great adventure, so have fun with it,” she says. 

Easy preparation

“Keep meals simple. Do not confuse family dinner with fancy dinner. Soup and grilled cheese with raw veggies and fruit can be a family dinner. The point is to gather your family around the table, talk, enjoy the food and the company,” says Registered Dietitian Katie Mulligan. Planning ahead, having ingredients stocked, and easy meal recipes, as well as timesaving kitchen equipment such as a pressure cooker, rice cooker and crock pot can help busy parents to get meals ready quickly, Katie suggests.

Rebecca Elbaum is a huge proponent of quick and easy cooking. How easy? “Sheet pan meals are the best almost no maintenance, no clean up quick and healthy dinner. Put chicken or salmon, a vegetable such as broccoli, carrots, asparagus, or peppers, and potatoes or sweet potatoes on a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes. Protein, carb, and veggie are on the table so easily!”

“Batch cooking is a life saver. Cook big one night, and cook small the rest of the week,” advises chef and recipe developer Ryan Goodwin.

Use some convenience foods to save time, suggests registered dietician Carol Meerschaert. “Start pasta with a can of tomatoes or a jar of sauce (check the nutrition table for sugar). Then add your spices to taste. Nothing wrong with beans from a can or frozen veggies. When you add frozen veggies to broth you have home made soup. Add canned beans to salads or soups. Then spend your time on the items where fresh matters like a salad.”

And here are a few super easy, health-boosted recipes from my own kitchen; a breeze to cook, and they’ll please the fussiest of eaters. 

The family meal is a gift. The dinner table is our opportunity for nourishing, minimally processed, fruits and veggies rich, conversation-infused, digitally distraction-less unrushed retreat.

Family meals are really worth the time and effort. The simplest of foods are better when enjoyed in company.

Share your own tips in the comments.

Dr. Ayala

Family meals are really worth the time and effort. The simplest of foods are better when enjoyed in company.
The habits instilled at home are kids’ protective shield in our obesogenic food environment