December 25, 2012

Family Meals Boost Nutrition

Don't leave kids to fend for themselves at mealtime. Eating togther improves nutrition in a big way. Of course, what you serve matters, too.

It's a classic scene – an entire family sitting around the dinner table and enjoying a meal together. But the family meal has fallen victim to the demands of today’s modern, fast-paced lifestyle. It is not just family ties that suffer as a result; children don’t eat as well, either. Left to their own devices, children tend to grab food on the go or microwave something. Fruits and vegetables are not part of the meal plan.

The World Health Organization recommends that children eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but only 37 percent meet that goal, according to new research that investigated how many fruits and vegetables children eat at family meals. Though this study took place in England, kids in most of Europe, the United States, and Australia also fail to eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Modern life often prevents the whole family from sitting around the dinner table, but this research shows that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets of our families...

Children’s dietary intake at home was assessed using the Child and Diet Evaluation Tool (CADET), a questionnaire completed by the parents. The questionnaire used age-specific portions to determine nutritional intake and listed 115 types of food and beverages which were divided into 15 categories. The parents also completed a home food diary in which they specified how often family meals were eaten and described their own consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Eating meals together had a big impact on how many fruits and vegetables kids ate. The researchers found that children ate, on average, 3.7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Those who always ate dinner with their families ate 5.2 servings, putting them at the goal of five servings a day. Children whose families occasionally ate meals together consumed 4.6 servings a day, 1.2 more servings than those who never ate together. Those children had 3.3 servings per day.

Of course, parents also made a difference. Children whose families reported having fruits and vegetables on a daily basis ate one portion more than children whose parents said they rarely or never consumed fruits and vegetables. And when parents said they always cut up fruits and vegetables for their children, those children ate half a portion more. The study also found that intake increased a little for every additional type of produce that was in the home.

“Modern life often prevents the whole family from sitting around the dinner table, but this research shows that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets of our families, ” said Meaghan Christian, one of the authors in a press release. “Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be more prominent in public health campaigns. Future work could be aimed at encouraging parents to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables themselves or encouraging parents to cut up or buy snack-sized fruit and vegetables, ” she added.

Kids don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and when they do eat produce it’s likely to be French fries or fruit juice, neither of which is considered nutrient rich. The key message from this study is the importance of families eating together as often as possible and including fruits and vegetables at those meals.

The study was published in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health .

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