While many acknowledge that sitting down to eat creates family bonds and opens lines of communication, many don’t realize that missing those meals can contribute to childhood obesity.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that more than a third of U.S. adults are obese. Perhaps more alarming is that the number of obese children has tripled in the past 30 years, to 17 percent. Because of all of the associated health risks of obesity, it is possible that the current generation of children may be the first generation whose life expectancy will not be greater than their parents.
"In terms of healthy eating habits, family meals are one of the most powerful tools available. Research has consistently shown that children and adolescents who eat more family meals are less likely to be overweight or obese. In addition, children who eat dinner with their families consume more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t," says Sherry Rieder, Ph.D., an obesity expert and assistant professor in Argosy University’s College of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences online programs. "If children learn about realistic food portions and healthy food options from a young age at family dinnertime, they are more likely to carry these habits with them into adulthood."
In addition, regular and routine family meals add needed structure to a child’s day. "In my family, we have a designated dinner time," says Victoria Hooker, assistant director of Culinary Arts at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Dallas, a branch of South University. "There’s no snacking before dinner, which means I know my family will be ready to fill up on a good meal as opposed to eating junk food. Family meal time is something parents can do now to fight childhood obesity. What’s best is that they can do it without any outside advice or help."
Rieder agrees and adds, "Getting kids involved in preparing food is a great way to teach them about healthy and balanced eating. Children are far more likely to eat food that they helped prepare — so get them to help prepare vegetables. Focus on consuming fruits and vegetables whenever possible and avoid sweetened drinks like sodas and juices."
For busy families who may not have much time to cook, a little planning can go a long way. "Even if the whole family cannot sit down at one time, eating home made meals is often a better alternative than eating take out food," says Rieder. "One trick is to try to stock up on some easy-to-prepare meals at home for those evenings when everyone is running late and feeling the stress of a long day. Another alternative is to prepare extra portions when cooking meals and freeze half."
When you simply can’t be home for dinner, Hooker advises families to plan and pack food ahead of time. "With today’s busy lifestyles, it is almost impossible to eat at home seven days a week, but families can make it a priority to eat at home five nights a week. When you do have to eat on the run, make healthy choices. Institute family rules like fried food only once a week," she says.