Meals together can help keep families slimmer

Jan 20, 2014, 12:57 PM | Updated: May 7, 2014, 6:24 pm

It’s not the first time family dinner has gained recognition for its benefits. Among other advantages, studies have shown it increases parent-child relationships and decreases the likelihood of kids abusing drugs and alcohol. Now it’s being reported that traditional, family-style meals can combat child obesity.

According to The Telegraph, a recent study found that children who eat with their parents at the dinner table are better able to learn the signs of feeling full, reducing the chance of overeating. The study also recommends allowing children to serve themselves instead of pre-plating food.

“Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences,” lead author Dr. Brent McBride, director of the child development laboratory at the University of Illinois, said. “When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body's hunger cues. They don't learn to say, 'OK, this is an appropriate portion size for me.' “

The research supports a 2013 study by Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Ellen van Kleef of Wageningen University, who found a relationship between BMI and dinner rituals — including whether or not the TV is on during mealtime.

“Although the reasons for the links are not clear, family meals and their rituals may be an underappreciated battleground to prevent obesity,” writes the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab on its discussion of the study. “Where one eats and how long one eats seems to be a driver of the weight one gains. Such behavior may be related to less distracted eating or more supervision.”

Despite the benefits, many families struggle to gather together for dinner.

A Deseret News article cites the 2013 “Britain at Home” report on family life in the United Kingdom, which found that 18 percent of British individuals regularly eat together around the dinner table. The article also references a Wall Street Journal piece regarding the status of family meals in America.

“Families are definitely eating faster,” Diana Kapp wrote for the Journal. “According to a 2011 survey of 1,000 teens by the National Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 32 percent of families spend 20 minutes or less eating dinner. That compares with 26 percent eating dinner at this pace in 2009, the prior survey year.”

A 2010 report from CBS shared similar findings. At the time, 74 percent of viewers claimed they ate together on weekdays in a CBS News Poll, but the way viewers were spending the time together had changed.

“According to the poll, 33 percent of viewers say the TV is always on during their dinner, with 27 percent saying it's on half the time or sometimes,” according to CBS. “Five percent of viewers say that people at their family dinner table are texting, emailing or using their cell phones throughout the meal, with 10 percent answering that they are sometimes guilty of this.”

But initiatives like The Family Dinner Project show that communities and families can still make the effort to improve their mealtime rituals. The Family Dinner Project aims to help families eat together by providing ideas and resources for making family dinners easier. The project's FAQ page addresses the benefits of eating together and includes ideas for making time for meals and suggestions on how to start conversations with children and teens.

EMAIL: amoore@deseretdigital.com

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Meals together can help keep families slimmer