Family meals promote children’s nutritional health

Having a meal together to combat overweight.

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Eating together with the family can prevent obesity in children. Scientists at the University of Mannheim and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development came to this conclusion after evaluating studies into the nutritional value of family meals. According to their findings, children from families that eat together more frequently eat healthier food and have a lower body mass index (BMI).

However, eating with the family does not automatically lead to better eating habits, as the author of the study, Dr Mattea Dallacker from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, has pointed out. The study’s co-author, Jutta Mata who is Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Mannheim, adds that the current research indicates that besides the nutritional value of meals, psychological and behavioural aspects are also important. By this she means that the meals should take place whenever possible in a pleasant atmosphere and that healthy food should be served. At the same time, a positive parental role model can contribute to improving children’s eating habits.

The scientists thus reject quick snacks being eaten in passing as well as meals that are taken almost incidentally when using a smartphone or tablet or watching the television. However, further research should provide additional knowledge about the patterns of behaviour mentioned. According to the current study, though, switching off the television is probably just as vital a part of a healthy family meal as the time spent eating. “How a family eats together is just as important or even more important than the frequency of eating meals together,” says co-author Prof Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. The age of the children - whether they are toddlers or adolescents – or the social and economic background of the family does not influence the results.

It therefore also seems clear that frequent family meals are just as good for a healthy diet for children as they are for educating them about a healthy diet. According to the study results, this is particularly true for children who are involved in preparing the meals or whose parents set a good example through their own eating habits.

Influence children’s eating habits while eating together

According to the authors, family meals can make a considerable contribution to preventing obesity: “Family meals are a way of combating overweight among children and adolescents,” explains Prof Mata, the health psychologist. This is because communal meals provide a good opportunity to influence children’s eating habits directly and at an early age. The scientists see this as an important duty for parents and educators, especially in view of the many different daily routines in our modern society.

For their meta-analysis of family meals, the researchers evaluated a total of 50 studies, involving more than 29,000 male and female test persons from all over the world, that deal with the interrelation of one or more components of family meals and the nutritional health of children. As the University of Mannheim researchers explained, the indicators used to determine nutritional health were BMI, as an indirect measure of body fat and overweight, and the nutritional value of the food, measured in terms of the portions of healthy and unhealthy food consumed each day.

Incidentally, the age of the children and the country where the study was conducted was not important for the results of the study. The scientists also emphasize that it does not matter which meal is taken together. It is also of no importance whether only one parent or the whole family is sitting at the same table.

Dr Mattea Dallacker advises that childhood offers a unique window of opportunity to counteract harmful habits relating to health and eating. She describes parents as ‘gatekeepers’ who have a decisive influence on what, how and how much children eat and believes family meals are an excellent learning environment to promote a healthy diet in children.

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