Family Meals Focus
The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter
Family meals are essential
by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist
Are you looking for the magic bullet to address child overweight and underweight, picky eating, special needs. Do you need tools to cope with medical conditions such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, allergies, and heart disease? Consider the family meal!
Read the table of contents of any major journal and you will find over-simplified explanations for child overweight: high frequency of fast food consumption, too much milk, too little milk, not enough sleep, too-big portion sizes, too much ”junk” food, too many soft drinks. On the other hand, considering child overweight in all its complexity leads to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one or the other isolated factor, but problems with parenting. Today’s parents have trouble knowing how important they are. Parents, and the rest of us who help them parent, have difficulty taking leadership: with meals, with managing access to foods and beverages, with guiding them in their use of free time, and with getting children to bed on time.
Children who have family meals do better nutritionally
Leadership with feeding is, of course, of concern to the clinician concerned about child nutrition and overweight. But family meals have far more to offer that simply addressing today’s weight hysteria. Teens who ate dinner with parents ate more fruits, vegetables and dairy foods. Dinner-eating predicted breakfast-eating.1 Children and teens who participated in family dinner consumed less fat, soda, and fried foods and more fruits and vegetables as well as more individual nutrients.2 Despite these clear nutritional advantages, a recent study duplicated research from earlier studies by finding that a full third of 11- to 18-year-olds ate one or two meals a week at most with their families. Only one fourth ate seven or more family meals per week.3
Children who have family meals do better in all ways
Teens who have regular meals with a parent are better adjusted emotionally and socially, have better grades and go further in school.
Important as family meals are for child nutrition, benefits to children go far beyond. Time spent with families at meals is more related to the psychological and academic success of adolescents than time spent in school, studying, church, playing sports, or doing art activities. Teens who had regular meals with a parent were better adjusted emotionally and socially, had better grades and went further in school. They had lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior and suicide risk.3, 4, 5
Failing to have family meals distorts feeding
Lacking the family meal as a focal point, child-feeding at all ages and stages has become distorted. The norm has become casual, on-demand feeding on the one hand and, on the other, food restriction and avoidance in the name of health and weight control. Health professionals can take strong leadership with parents and still stay within their own areas of expertise by emphasizing structure: sit-down family meals at regular times, sit-down snacks between meals and limiting random access to food and beverages.
3. Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2004;158:792-6.
4. Hofferth SL. How American children spend their time. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 2001;63(295-308). 5. Council of Economic Advisers to the President (CEAC) . Teens and Their Parents in the 21st Century: an Examination of Trends in Teen Behavior and the Role of Parental Involvement. 2000.
For more about the critical importance of family meals, see chapter 3, ”Make family meals a priority,” in Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.