Childhood is the prime time for laying the foundations of positive and life-long healthy eating habits. A report from a group of experts, Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating, shows the key role of families in building good eating habits in children. Every month, we will bring you a summary post, highlighting some of the key messages, in order to help families nurture healthier eating habits and to include yogurt, as a tasty, nutrient-dense food in daily diets for everyone.
Eating as a family is a beneficial social experience for children. It is an ideal time for them to observe, imitate, discuss, ask and learn about food, culture and thus to build their identity, a sense of belonging and healthy habits.
“Eating together as a family is associated with many positive outcomes for children, including the establishment of healthy eating habits.”
Family meals for healthy dietary habits
“Eating together” or “a family meal” is usually defined by experts as “a child having a planned meal with at least one parent (or parent relative/caregiver)”. Scientific and health organisations like WHO strongly recommend that families eat more meals together. The frequency and context of family meals have the potential to improve dietary intake among children.
Children who have frequent family meals are more likely to have healthy eating habits such as having breakfast and eating more nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables and dairy products. On the opposite, children who eat fewer meals in family are keener to eat more fast food, sweetened drinks and saturated fats.
More frequent family meals may improve children’s eating habits through different mechanisms:
- foods eaten during family meals are healthier than those consumed alone or outside of the home
- eating together allows parents to model healthful food intake and eating patterns
- eating together provides a context in which children can implicitly learn about healthy eating through conversations and the emotional tone of the mealtime.
Family meals shape kids’ eating habits in a sustainable way: they have a positive impact not only on children’s diet but also on young adults’ diet.
And many other positive outcomes
The benefits of family meals are not limited to adopting healthy eating habits. Since family meals are a place of interaction between a parent and his child, eating together is associated with many positive psychological outcomes such as better self-esteem and academic achievements. It may also contribute to protect against disordered eating behaviours, violence or depression.
Eating together is also a way for parents to convey the importance of family relationships, culture and to strengthen the parent-child bond.
However, the context matters and the beneficial effects of family meals depend on how we eat together. For instance, studies shows that the use of screens/televisions during mealtime reduces the benefits of family meals and has been associated with less healthful food offered and reduced healthful food intake.
On the other hand, specific habits can contribute to a positive influence on healthy eating habits. For example:
- engaging children in meal preparation
- eating at regular times
- sharing the same meal between parents and children
Family meal: a challenge in a speedy life
If the impact of eating together may be beneficial to build healthy eating habits, the number of family meals is declining since the 1960s and family meals are difficult to combine with today’s pace of life..
Families are busy and balancing work and family can be difficult. Meals have to be cooked and eaten quickly: working parents spend less time preparing meals and they are more likely to serve easy-to-prepare or fast food to their children. This is particularly true in low-income families where parents may have multiple jobs. Work-related stress and busy schedules are also associated with fewer family meals and more fast food dinners.
The part of family meals depends also largely on culture and varies between countries: in Europe, only 33% of British share more than five meals per week with their kids compared to 78% of Spanish.
Eating together: in practice
Here are some tips to help you make the most of family meals:
- Adjust frequency of shared meals to your schedule: Set a realistic target based on your schedule. If you can only share 3 meals per week with your children, it is already positive. Every meal counts!
- Turn off TV and screens: Turn off the TV and don’t let phones and tablets interfere with the meal. It will encourage discussion and interaction.
- Discuss healthy tasty foods: Use the opportunity of family meals to talk about healthy foods and tell children you love the healthy foods you are eating. If a child sees you eating broccoli and liking it, he may want to try.
For the whole family, to adopt healthy eating habits, choose and share nutrient-dense foods such as yogurt!
Nutrient-rich foods mainly contain “more nutrient to encourage” than “nutrients to limit”.
Yogurt, for example, contains high-quality protein, including all nine essential amino acids in the proportions needed for protein synthesis and proteins in yogurt are more digestible than proteins in standard milk, probably because the fermentation process starts to break them down into smaller units.
Yogurt is a well-recognised source of calcium, but it also provides smaller amounts of many other micronutrients, including potassium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B5, vitamin B12 and in some countries, vitamin D.
Eating together is a social experience, a place for discussion between kids and parents. Through family meals, parents can positively influence their children’s healthy habits, physical and psychological health.
Since the majority of meals are taken at home, next month we will discuss the importance of having a healthy home environment to build healthy habits in kids… Stay tuned!
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