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Family Mealtime Essential for Children's Health

Fruit and vegetable consumption goes up when parents and kids eat meals together.

Family eating dinner-- by Jenara Nerenberg

The Gist

Eating together as a family has benefits beyond conversation and catching up—new research shows that children who eat at least one or two meals per week together with their families eat greater amounts of fruits and vegetables (1.5 more portions), according to a University of Leeds study published today in the British Medical Journal's Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. The findings are especially important in the face of widespread childhood obesity, and the upcoming holidays and new year celebrations are a perfect time to reset family mealtime habits. 

The Expert Take

"Cutting up fruit and vegetables for your child, eating fruit and vegetables together with your child, and eating a family meal together at a table are all good habits to get into which will improve the fruit and vegetable intake of the whole family,” lead author Dr. Meaghan Christian tells Healthline. 

The World Health Organization recommends at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day. 

"Even if it's just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings, they learn about eating," says Professor Janet Cade at the University of Leeds' School of Food Science and Nutrition, the study's supervisor. "Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences."

Source and Method

Dietary measurements of 2,389 children were assessed using home and school food journals, as were the mealtime practices of parents, using questionnaires. Sixty-three percent of children did not meet the recommended five portions per day of fruits and vegetables. Those who ate regularly with their families consumed 1.5 portions more of fruits and vegetables, and those who ate once or twice per week with their families ate 1.2 portions more than those who never ate together.

The Takeaway

“The takeaway message for parents is that their own consumption plays a vital role in their children's fruit and vegetable intake," says Christian.

Plan to have your children sit down with the whole family for meals at least once or twice per week and make sure to include ample amounts of colorful fruits and vegetables so the kids learn from your example and continue healthy eating habits into adulthood.

"Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be more prominent in public health campaigns," says Christian. "Future work could be aimed at improving parental intake or encouraging parents to cut up or buy snack-sized fruit and vegetables."

Other Research

2003 study found that adolescents have greater vegetable and fruit intake when parents are present at mealtime and parents should thus be educated about the importance of family mealtimes for their children's long-term health. However, having the TV on during family mealtime reduces vegetable intake, as another 2003 study shows. And another 2003 study reinforces the findings that parents influence their children's long-term eating habits, and should thus establish and model healthy eating habits from early childhood.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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About the Author

The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.