This article is part of a series by the Ismaili Nutrition Centre that examines evidence-based studies published in scientific journals, and distills what they mean to our readers.
When was the last time your family sat down and enjoyed a meal together? With music lessons, sports activities, homework, and busy work schedules, rounding up the family for an evening meal can appear to be an impossible task. However, research is beginning to show that eating together can benefit the whole family, particularly children and teenagers.
Researchers at the universities of Windsor and Western Ontario in Canada concluded from a large-scale study that looked at the eating habits of over 1 200 children aged 10–14, that family dining has a significant impact on the overall diet of children. The results of the study, which were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (March 2010), found that two thirds of the children ate dinner with at least one parent 6–7 days a week; some only 3–5 days a week and 15 per cent for 0–2 days a week.
Generally, the group that had dinner with their families more frequently had a healthier diet (as measured against the Healthy Eating Index) than those that did not. The study also found that parents played an important role in encouraging their children to eat a variety of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, and limiting the intake of sugary foods and beverages.
What this means for you
Although it can be challenging to make time for family meals because of busy work and after-school activities, there are many benefits to eating together regularly, whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner time. Some of these benefits are:
- Increasing communication and bonding
Meal-time conversations provide opportunities for the family to bond, plan, connect, and learn from one another. Family meals foster warmth, security and love, as well as feelings of belonging.
- Expanding the palate, expanding their world
Family meals provide the opportunity to introduce new foods to children – preferably without forcing, coercing or bribing – alongside the usual favourites, thereby expanding their world, one food at a time. You may, for example, want to introduce children to sweet potatoes or have a spinach salad instead of the usual lettuce salad. It provides an opportunity to try new recipes, providing both you and your children with new experiences.
- Learning new skills
Basic cooking, baking and food preparation skills are necessities for being self-sufficient. If you involve your family in the menu planning, grocery shopping, and food preparation, your children are likely to learn new skills, many of which will benefit them in the long term.
You can involve children of all ages in food preparation. For instance, pre-schoolers can tear lettuce, cut bananas, and set the table; older children can pour milk, peel vegetables, and mix batter; and teenagers can can dice, chop, bake, and grill. Working as a team puts the meal on the table faster, as well as makes everyone more responsible and accepting of the outcome. Improved eating habits come with “ownership” of a meal.
- Establishing good long-term eating habits
It is important to establish good eating habits in order for children to make healthier choices. Children will model their parents' behaviours, so it's important that they see their parents enjoying healthy foods and establishing good eating habits.
For example, parents who eat breakfast will have children who also develop the same good habit. Role modelling is more likely to influence your children than forcing them or telling them what to eat and what not to eat. Ensuring meals have plenty of healthy options such as a selection of vegetables, fruits and drinks, will allow children to opt for the healthier food option when faced with choices outside of the home.
- Saving money
Meals prepared at home are not only more nutritious but also more cost effective – usually two to four times as much – than those purchase outside the home. Preparing a little extra dinner so that you can take the left overs for lunch the next day will provide both a nutritious meal and help save money.
If you do not already eat regularly together, why not start by committing to have family meals one or two days per week. You may want to lighten the workload by sharing meal preparation chores among family members – it can be fun and rewarding to cook together. What better way to end the day than spending time around the dinner table with loved ones, catching up on everyone's day while enjoying a delicious, healthy, home-cooked meal?