New European research has found that regularly eating together as a family helps pass healthy eating habits onto children that last well into adulthood, potentially preventing obesity later in life.
Carried out by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Mannheim, Germany, the new meta-analysis looked at 57 studies which together included a total of 203,706 of participants from across the world.
The team analyzed the relationship between family meals and children’s nutritional health using the measurements of body mass index (BMI), the number of portions of fruit and vegetables eaten per day (as an indicator of healthy diet), and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, and salty snacks (as indicators of an unhealthy diet).
The researchers found that frequent family meals are associated with lower body mass index (BMI) and a healthy diet in children, with the relationship found across all countries and all ages.
The positive finding also held true whether meals were taken with just one parent or the whole family.
“Childhood is a unique window of opportunity for countering detrimental eating and lifestyle habits,” commented lead author Mattea Dallacker. “Parents act as ‘nutritional gatekeepers’ in that they have a substantial influence on when, what, and how much children eat. So family meals offer a rich learning environment for setting up healthy eating habits in children.”
Co-author Jutta Mata also added that, “The current research indicates that it’s not just the quality of food that’s important, but that psychological and behavioral factors also play a role. For example, mealtime routines such as positive parental role modeling or a pleasant atmosphere could improve children’s eating habits.”
However, for parents struggling to get the whole family together for meal times, or consistently provide home-cooked dinners, co-author Ralph Hertwig noted that children could still learn this healthy habits from others.
“Given the increasing trend for both parents to work, putting regular family meals on the table is a daily challenge for many families. In this context, it’s important to note that initial findings indicate that other communal meals, such as school lunches, can also have positive effects on children’s eating habits. For instance, one study showed that teachers can also serve as positive role models when eating together with their students.”
The results can be found published online in the journal Obesity Reviews. JB