As pediatricians and public health and school district officials continue to sound the alarm about the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, it should comfort — and embolden — you to know that one of the most powerful preventions lies firmly in your control: Eat together as a family.
Eat Together to Weigh Less
In a new national study of preschool children, researchers at Ohio State University cited family meals as one of three behaviors that are associated with significantly reduced obesity among the youngsters — even in kids who have other risk factors. The other family lifestyles the researchers point to as having protective effects: watching less than two hours of TV a day, and getting enough sleep (for these 4-year-olds, that meant 10 1/2 hours a night). Each routine was linked to lower obesity; following more of them increased the benefit. In fact, when all three were practiced in a household, children had a 40 percent lower incidence of obesity than kids whose homes lacked any of the behaviors.
Other research has linked improved nutritional habits — less sugar, soda, fat and sodium intake, and greater amounts of fruit, vegetables, fiber and calcium-rich foods — among children and teens who eat with their families. These healthful eating habits help both children and adults reach and maintain healthy weights. And, as Mira Ilic, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, notes, “Eating healthfully is something for the whole family.” Focus family meals on good-for-everyone choices like whole-grain foods, lean protein, low-fat dairy and lots of fruits and vegetables, and experiment with ways to make family favorites more healthful — try homemade pizza, for instance, made with a whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese, and topped with grilled veggies instead of, say, pepperoni.
Eat Together to Breathe Easier
If the idea that parents who eat with their kids have an easier time getting healthy food down the hatch seems obvious, consider this: In new research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, family meals have been linked to reduced anxiety in children with asthma; when these youngsters are less anxious, note the researchers, their lung function improves.
The details of dining mattered, though — meals characterized by organization, specific roles and participation by all family members created the greatest sense of security and calm for anxious kids. This is good news for parents: A successful family meal doesn’t mean mom or dad slaving away in the kitchen alone — everyone should be involved!
Make Family Mealtime an Opportunity for Better Health
1. Extend mealtime to the market. Bring the kids shopping with you, to involve them in meal planning before you even hit the kitchen, suggests Ilic. A trip to the farmers’ market can be a great Saturday afternoon family outing; when hitting the grocery store, show your youngsters how to read nutrition labels, and discuss choices before you put things in the cart.
2. Give everyone a task. Have young ones set the table or rinse veggies before dinner; older kids can peel, chop or stir. And notes Ilic, don’t forget the cleanup — doing the dishes doesn’t violate child-labor laws, no matter what the kids argue.
3. Practice “stealth health.” There are myriad parenting books on how to sneak in veggies, but try one of these nutrition boosters from Ilic: Swap white-flour pasta for one made with whole grains (if it’s under tomato sauce, they might not even notice); try a whole-grain pancake mix; serve up pureed soups (where kids might not notice the veggies) or low-fat fruit smoothies to get in more produce.
4. Include favorites. On a rotating basis, let each family member select one food to include in the meal. For instance, give each kid a night to pick the vegetable of his choice. What they choose to try might surprise you and will give the whole family the opportunity to experiment with new varieties.
5. Drink up right. Serve water or milk at meals; ban soda and sweetened drinks. Not only will that benefit everyone’s waistline, but the next dentist’s visit might be more pleasant!