Having the family sit down together for dinner every night may make children more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables, researchers found.
Schoolchildren whose families ate dinner together every night ate 1.6 more servings of fruits and vegetables each day compared with those whose families never ate together (P<0.001), according to Meaghan Christian, of the University of Leeds School of Food Science and Nutrition in England, and colleagues.
In addition, parents who ate fruits and vegetables every day and who cut them up for their children had kids who ate more of them (P=0.001 for both), the researchers reported online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
“The key message from this research is for families to eat fruit and vegetables together at a mealtime,” they wrote. “Successful public health interventions are needed to improve family food-related behavior.”
In the last 4 years, the U.K. Department of Health has pushed the “5 A Day” campaign to get people eating five 80-gram servings of fruits and vegetables each day, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Also, the “Change 4 Life” campaign has been aimed at getting families to improve their lifestyles through dietary modification and exercise. Neither campaign, however, directly tackles family mealtime behaviors.
To explore the influence of the home food environment and parental attitudes and values on the consumption of fruits and vegetables by children, Christian and colleagues turned to participants in two randomized controlled trials that were evaluating a school gardening program.
The current analysis included 2,383 children (mean age 8.3 years) who were attending one of 52 primary schools in London.
The children’s diet was assessed using the Child and Diet Evaluation Tool (CADET), on which fieldworkers in school or parents at home selected the foods consumed by the children during a 24-hour period. The home portion of the questionnaire also included items regarding mealtime behaviors and parental attitudes.
On average, the participants consumed 293 grams of fruits and vegetables — or about 3.7 servings — each day. Only 37% of the children consumed the recommended five daily servings.
After adjustment for age, sex, ethnicity, and a measure of deprivation, children from families that reported “always” eating a family meal together ate, on average, 125 more grams of fruits and vegetables compared with those from families that “never” ate a meal together. Eating a family meal together “sometimes” was associated with consumption of 95 grams more.
Children whose parents ate fruits and vegetables every day ate 88 grams of fruits or vegetables more than those who parents rarely or never ate the foods. Having a parent who cut up the fruits and vegetables was associated with consumption of 44 grams more each day.
The authors noted that there are other benefits to family mealtime aside from greater consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Family meals “provide conversational time for families, incentives to plan a meal, and an ideal environment for parents to model appropriate mealtime behavior,” Christian and colleagues wrote. “Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be utilized in public health campaigns such as the ‘Every Contact Counts’ campaign, raising health consciousness using brief interventions.”
They acknowledged some limitations of the study, including possible response bias introduced by a failure of some parents to complete the additional questions on home food environment, the use of data reported by parents, which could be subject to social desirability bias, and the possibility that a 1-day assessment of diet may not provide an accurate long-term picture of intake.
– By Todd Neale, Senior Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Todd Neale, MedPage Today Staff Writer, got his start in journalism at Audubon Magazine and made a stop in directory publishing before landing at MedPage Today. He received a B.S. in biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an M.A. in journalism from the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program at New York University. He is based at MedPage Today headquarters in Little Falls, N.J.