What parent doesn’t want their kid to eat a more nutritious diet, have a healthy body weight, excel in school, stay clear of behavior problems, and be less likely to develop eating disorders? Studies show that frequent family meals are associated with all these desirable outcomes.
Researchers are still trying to figure out what it is about family meals. Is it the food, good nutrition, family togetherness, or the structure? While it is probably a combination of these things, one thing is for sure: the family meal is a powerful tool in raising healthy eaters.
In addition to having regular meals together as a family, there are specific things parents can do to make this ritual more positive and enjoyable. Let’s take a look.
Check Your Feeding Style
Parental feeding practices are defined in the same way general parenting styles are. An authoritarian feeding style attempts to control or restrict children’s eating without regard for their preferences. Authoritative feeding practices set respectful limits and encourage healthy eating but also consider children’s food preferences. And permissive feeding sets few limits and allows children to decide the what, when, and where of eating.
“How parents feed their children is a big factor in how their children learn to relate to food,” says Jill Castle MS, RD, pediatric nutrition specialist. “Controlling and permissive feeding styles can contribute to weight problems and disordered eating.”
A 2004 study showed that children with parents that have an authoritative feeding style ate more nutritious diets than those with an authoritarian one.
So it’s that middle ground you’re looking for: providing leadership at mealtime while without being too controlling. The authoritative approach is not only the most effective, it also helps everyone at the table relax and enjoy.
“I wish my parents taught me more about moderation. Aside from soda (our special Friday night treat), we had access to everything in the house, says Amy, a 24-year-old who has struggled with her eating. “I think maybe it’s because my parents never really learned the art of moderation either, but I was a kid who could polish off a sleeve of cookies with no problem. I was never a big kid, but these habits are hard to break now that I’m older!”
Make Family Meals Pleasant
Elizabeth Armstrong, who was diagnosed with an eating disorder in college and chronicles her recovery on Joggers Life, remembers family meals as “dinnertime chaos.” There was often fighting, restrictions put on her eating, a dieting mother, and lots of processed and packaged foods.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies and mixed messages,” she says. “I really believe family dinners should be pleasant for kids, not negative.”
When kids have a positive association with meals, they are more likely to eat and be pleasant at the table. But if they are stressed, kids are more likely to act out and view mealtime as a negative experience.
One way to make mealtimes more pleasant is to focus on connection, not what or how much kids are eating. Even if a young child isn’t interested in eating, they can stay at the table and enjoy the conversation.
“Parents have thousands of opportunities to connect with their children during mealtime,” says Jill Castle. “That connection can be positive or negative, it’s up to parents.”
Create Meal Traditions
“What kids really crave is structure,” Abby Ellin says based on her interviews with overweight kids for her book, Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat-Camper Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, And How Parents Can (And Can’t) Help.
Rituals take the structure of family meals up a notch and make it more fun.
So if you haven’t already, start some mealtime traditions. Maybe Fridays can be make-your-own pizza nights while Sundays are reserved for pancakes. These rituals will create positive memories with food and meals.
But it’s important to continue meals and rituals as kids get older when eating problems are more likely to strike.
“I grew up with my mom and I sharing dinner together every night. She always knew what I ate for breakfast and lunch too,” says Tori, a 19-year-old college student. “Around the time I started having eating disorder symptoms, she never was around to see me at mealtimes and never inquired about it either. I think it’s important for parents to keep an interest in how their children are eating.”
Provide Balanced Meals
In this day and age, there is a lot of pressure to serve healthy meals. But I think it’s better to view meals in terms of balance. That’s because extremes in either direction are no good. The key is to provide a variety of foods that provide nutrition and good taste.
In order to achieve balance, serve nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins) in greater quantities, in-between foods (higher fat dairy products, fattier meats, white bread) in more moderate quantities and fun foods (sweets and fried foods) less often. I’ll be talking more about how to strike this balance in future posts, but every family needs to find the balance that works best for them.
Set the tone at the table
Eating at the table is like being naked — everything shows. If you are trying to diet, feel out of control with eating, or are stressed about the preparation of meals it’ll be out there.
Children, of course, pick up on everything. When I first started cooking I wasn’t really enjoying the meals because I was so stressed getting everything on the table. I soon learned that picking easier meals was a better strategy because I was happier. I could always make more complex dishes later.
Most parents know that they are role models for their children and might avoid eating high-calorie treats in front of them. But authors of a recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, argue that it’s important for parents to model how to moderately eat the not-so-healthy foods.
If you struggle with eating sweets then visit our moms and parent section for help. We’ll also be talking more about this subject in our next parent tip.
The bottom line: pleasant and frequent family meals help your child develop a healthy relationship with food. And when they grow up, they are more likely to make feeding themselves a priority.
What were your eating experiences growing up? Did you enjoy family meals?