By Matthew Hutson, published on December 4, 2007 - last reviewed on March 10, 2011
Childhood obesity is an epidemic. As of 2007, a third of American kids between ages 6 and 19 are overweight, and 70 percent of overweight children become overweight adults. So teaching kids good eating habits will serve them well for years to come. And one of the most promising interventions emerging may be the least strenuous and have the widest implications for overall family health. It's simple: Eat dinner together.
Studies show that kids who eat four or more meals with their families per week have much healthier diets and fewer eating disorders such as bingeing. The influence is long lasting: Young adults who had more family meals as adolescents consume more fruits and veggies, according to a report from the University of Minnesota.
And family meals have all kinds of wonderful side effects. Other studies show better grades, fewer psychological problems, higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression, and less substance abuse in kids who eat with their families. Family cohesion benefits too. According to Barbara Fiese, a psychologist who studies family routines and health at Syracuse University, "It's a time when family members tell jokes, family stories are created, and kids learn about family history. That's really how a family identity is created."
Should you force-feed your kids Brussels sprouts and deny them second servings of pie? The best strategy, says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, who studies behavior and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, is to provide a positive environment full of healthy food choices, and allow children to regulate their own intake. Suggest they have some peas and let them serve themselves. "It's kind of like reading," says Neumark-Sztainer, the author of I'm, Like, So Fat! Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World. "If you want your kids to read, you buy good books, you read to them, and you model reading. But if you force it, it's going to backfire."
Neumark-Sztainer emphasizes the importance of setting a good example. "I always advise parents to avoid making negative comments about their weight or about the food they're eating." Avoid words such as: "I can't believe I ate that piece of cake! Now I feel so fat! I shouldn't have done that." Instead, demonstrate that you can eat one piece of cake, enjoy it, and not feel guilty.
Have your kids take part in planning and preparing meals. "It's a great learning opportunity. They learn things about measurement, they learn things about planning," Fiese says. Give younger kids a range of options and ask them what they'd like. Preteens can help plan the menu, or take responsibility for cooking a meal once a week or month. According to Fiese, "You really can't start too young with these routines and rituals."
Parents should enforce good manners and behavior, but not make that the focus, according to Fiese. Spend two to three minutes on niceties such as: say "please" and "thank you," get your elbows off the table, don't hit your sister. Also, keep contentious matters out of the dining room. It's more important to open up the lines of communication and make eating together a pleasant experience. "It can be tempting to talk about homework or chores," Neumark-Sztainer says. But rather than make the table a place of conflict, save difficult conversations for later.
If preparing a four-course dinner with all the fixin's sounds intimidating, make use of convenience foods. Neumark-Sztainer suggests picking up a rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad at the grocery store. Or putting some bread and vegetables out for making sandwiches, perhaps with a side of soup. "It doesn't have to be elaborate." And you're not required to sit there forever either. Fiese says the average meal lasts only 20 minutes. "A lot happens in that very brief period of time."