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For Kids' Sake, Make Family Meals a Habit

Eating Meals Together as a Family Improves Children's Diets, Possibly for the Long Haul, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 10, 2009 -- Listen up, kids. Sitting down to eat with your parents night after night might seem like a drag, but over the long run, it’ll be good for you, a new study says.

Regular family meals improve diet quality during the transition from early to middle adolescence, researchers report. And a good diet could be habit forming and carry over into adulthood.

The researchers analyzed data on what teens eat and their weight, which can affect health.

Students from suburban and urban public middle schools in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area completed surveys and a questionnaire in 1998-1999, when they were 12 or 13 years old. Five years later, they completed another questionnaire on their family eating habits and patterns as high schoolers.

The study included 303 males and 374 females. Regular family meals were defined as five or more meals during the week with all or most of the family living in the house.

Over time, regular family meals declined, the researchers say. Sixty percent of youngsters had regular family meals during early adolescence vs. 30% during middle adolescence, researchers say in the March/April issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The researchers say that having regular family meals was associated with a greater frequency of eating breakfast and dinner, and also increased intake of vegetables, calcium-rich food, dietary fiber, and nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

An important finding, the researchers say, is that young people who had regular family meals when 12-13 and also five years later had better diet quality.

“These findings suggest that having regular family meals during the transition from early to middle adolescence positively impacts the development of healthful eating behaviors for youths,” write the researchers, including Teri L. Burgess-Champoux, PhD, RD, LD, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “Findings from the current analysis, in conjunction with similar findings from a longitudinal analysis of older adolescents transitioning to young adulthood, strongly suggest that regular family meals have long-term nutritional benefits.”

The authors point out that the period from 12 to the late teens is “one of the most dynamic developmental periods” during a person’s lifetime, and thus habits established in this time frame are more likely to last.

They suggest that parents convey this information to their children and also help them learn food preparation skills so they’ll still make, eat, and even enjoy tossed salads when they grow up.

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