Family Meals & Good Attitudes: The Key to Healthy Kids

Family meal time

Making a meal for six people every night is tough, especially when four of those people are children. Rarely are all six of us happy. Someone, for sure, isn’t going to like some part of the meal. There are dietary restrictions to consider. If I’ve had a bad day, the last thing I want to do is deal with unhappy, hungry children. We may all end up at the table at the same time, but our meals don’t always end up having a "warmer, more communicative atmosphere."

Sometimes it’s an icy-cold "you’d better eat what I put in front of you" atmosphere. With lectures about food and homework. We’re a mess.


Especially according to Alice Park's interesting article in Time about how family meals and dinner-table dynamics can impact a kid’s weight. Park cites a study from the University of Minnesota, and here’s one of the big takeaways:

Children who were overweight or obese had family meals that included more negative emotional interactions — hostility, poor quality interactions, little communication, and more controlling behavior from their parents — compared to children who weren’t obese. Their meals tended to have a warmer, more communicative atmosphere. For example, these children were given positive reinforcements to eat, and were encouraged to eat foods to get stronger or run faster, while heavier children experienced more negative pressures including threats and made to feel guilty about those in the world who can’t afford to eat three meals a day. If parents or caregivers talked constantly throughout the meal about food, and lectured about homework or attempted to control what the children ate, the youngsters were also more likely to be heavy.

That's fascinating. In addition to family meals being beneficial overall, the empirical evidence shows that parents' attitudes and a positive or negative outlook during those meals also have an effect on a child's obesity.

I need to remember that part about negativity because -- let's face it -- getting everyone at the table together can be a chore. It's hard for our family of six. But I’m sure it's hard for families of every size. I can’t imagine what it's like for single-parent families.

A 2005 study showed that eating an evening meal as a family more than five times a week was a lifestyle change that could reduce childhood obesity. Five times? Seriously? That’s a lofty goal. Especially when our schedules are as jam-packed as they are these days.

With sports practices, music lessons, homework, my husband's job, my job, random appearances in our home from neighbor kids, end-of-the-day breakdowns, and everything else, we struggle with sitting down to an evening meal on a daily basis. Still, I think about family dinners EVERY DAY, because planning and executing them typically falls upon my shoulders. But ANYWAY.

As a blogger, I’m more likely to give readers a rosier outlook of our meal times. It’s human nature, I guess. And there definitely ARE times when our meals are positive experiences. We talk to each other about the day. We have conversations about issues that we might not have had the chance to otherwise. It adds structure to the day because we all know that we will be eating together at a certain time. It's easier to eat healthy foods. It’s a great time to try new foods.

Most of the time, we end up laughing ... usually it's at whichever child has decided that throwing a fit on the floor is better than just trying the new food. That still counts as laughing together, though. Right?

Anyway, my kids aren’t obese, but that article got me thinking about the benefits of family meal time. They're all in school now. They are faced with lots of crap. We do as much as we can at home to help them know how to make good choices, and I hope our discussions at family meal time can help with those decisions.

And I'm always a fan of finding extra ways to keep my kids healthy. Schools can only do so much with recess, PE, and healthier lunch options. Helping kids eat healthy and having an opportunity to talk for maybe 20 minutes as a family seems like a good place to start.

Yes, there are going to be days when I don't want to mess with meal preparation -- days when I want to have what friends of mine call a YOYO Dinner (You're On Your Own). But I’m trying to do better. The Family Dinner Project looks like a helpful place to start.

Who’s with me?


Read More >