Family Meal Key to Good Health

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Parents and son eating meal; Family Meal Key to Good HealthMADISON – Between kids' sports practice and extra-curricular activities, and parents' full-time jobs, who has time to sit down for a family meal, let alone prepare one?

It's a challenge that many families face, yet sharing a meal together has importance beyond just the physical. It can make a significant difference in children's psychological, social and even emotional health.

According to Marcy Braun, nutritionist with UW Health's Pediatric Fitness Clinic, research has shown that children who regularly sit down for meals with their families eat healthier, drink more milk and eat less junk food. The families have better communication. And, these same kids are more likely to achieve their full potential in school and are less likely to drink, smoke, experience depression, or engage in risky behaviors.

"It's amazing how significant the family meal truly is, yet this generation is losing sight of its importance," said Braun.

The rate of childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the last three decades. Because of the high incidence of obesity and the health problems that often result from it, this is the first generation that will have a shorter lifespan than their parents. While many causes contribute to the problem, the loss of the family meal is significant.

With hectic schedules, family meals are often the first to go. The problem is that without the parents' active involvement in meal planning and preparation, kids lose a structure to help them decide what to eat. Left to their own devices, many kids will opt for junk food instead of a healthy, balanced meal.

"Snacks are frequently displacing meals," said Braun. "When you couple that with watching television while eating and other distractions, kids actually lose the ability to regulate how much they eat. They learn to ignore their own bodies' message that they're full."

The challenge is that there is no simple fix for how to bring back the family meal. It's a matter of choice. And parents play a significant role.

"It's up to the parents to decide what's important. Kids need parents to really step in and help provide that support and structure," said Braun.

She has a few recommendations for how to help create the space for family meals, including: 
  • Say "no" to activities that might interfere with a meal time 
  • Make a list of meal ideas for the upcoming week. The Pediatric Fitness Clinic provides some healthy, kid-friendly recipes to get you started.
  • Grocery shop and purchase the needed ingredients for all of the meals 
  • Get kids to pitch in – when kids can participate in the meal planning and preparation, they're more likely to eat what you're making 
  • Establish a rule of no television during meal times 
  • Try to eat at regular times
And keep in mind, meals don't have to be complicated or take a long time to prepare. It can be as simple as serving a salad along with pizza. Braun also points out that sharing a family meal doesn't have to take place seven days a week, but it's important to commit to at least a few days.

"There's a lot competing for everyone's time," Braun acknowledged, "and we fall into habits because it's easy. But it's critical to make the time and the effort for good meals because it directly affects the health of children."

Date Published: 05/02/2008

News tag(s):  child nutritionchildrenspediatric fitness

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