January 8, 2018

Meals Are for More than Food

The emotional atmosphere around your family table has a big impact on children's development.

What's it like around your dinner table? Are mealtimes most often a group of people looking at their phones and helping themselves to takeout? Or do you and your family manage to come together on most nights over a shared, home-cooked meal?

Family meals give parents a chance to model healthy eating habits. Studies show that children who share meals regularly with their family eat more nutrients, protein, fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods.

The 30 minutes or so it takes to shut down your screens and have a meal and talk to your children about simple stuff is worth it.

But the atmosphere around the table can be as important as what is eaten at it, according to a recent Canadian study. It found the environment at family meals that young children experience predicts their levels of fitness, soda consumption and aggression years later. The findings suggest the emotional atmosphere at mealtime could be a target for interventions and public information campaigns to improve kids' well-being as well as their nutrition.

In the past, researchers were uncertain if families that ate their meals together were simply healthier to begin with, Linda Pagani, senior author on the study, said. Measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the family environment.

The researchers looked at data from nearly 1500 children enrolled in the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. When the children were six years old, parents reported on the emotional environment of a typical family meal by responding to the following statements: Mealtime is enjoyable for all; Mealtime is an opportunity to talk; Family members confide in one another; Everyone feels accepted for who they are; and, There are lots of bad feelings in the family.

When the children were 10 years old, parents were asked to report on their children’s physical fitness and soda consumption; their fourth grade teachers were asked to rate their academic achievements relative to their classmates; and the children were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their social adjustment at school.

The researchers found that a positive environment for family meals was associated with higher fitness levels and less soda consumption. Children who ate family meals in a positive environment were also less likely to show aggression and more likely to behave better in school.

“We encourage families to eat together,” resesearcher Josée-Marie Harbec, a doctoral student in psychoeducation at the University of Montreal, told TheDoctor. Simply eating a meal together most nights can give children more quality time with their families and a better childhood overall.

Families might not think skipping a meal together is significant, so they skip meals together more frequently. But the findings of the current study suggest otherwise, Harbec said. “Maybe the 30 minutes or so it takes to have a meal, and talk to your children about simple stuff, and shut down your screens, is worth it,” she said.

The study is published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

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