How do you make the most of family mealtimes when it comes to the outlook for children's health? Holistic health practices can help family resiliency just by having parents spend an extra four minutes at mealtime with their children in a relaxed frame of mind. When low-income families devote three to four extra minutes to regular family mealtimes, their children's ability to achieve and maintain a normal weight improves measurably.
"Children whose families engaged with each other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than kids who left the table after 15 to 17 minutes," said Barbara H. Fiese, director of the University of Illinois's Family Resiliency Program, according to a new study from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the US Department of Agriculture, and the NIH/National Institute of Mental Health. The study appears in the December 2012 issue of the journal Economics and Human Biology.
"Over time, those extra minutes per meal add up and become really powerful," said Barbara H. Fiese, according to the January 17, 2013 news release, "In minutes a day, low-income families can improve their kids' health." You can check out the original study or its abstract, "Family mealtimes: A contextual approach to understanding childhood obesity," published in the December, 2012 issue of the journal Economics and Human Biology and is available online. Co-authors are Amber Hammons and Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, University of Illinois. The National Institute of Mental Health and USDA provided funding.
The power of three to four minutes daily
Childhood obesity in low-income families is a complex problem with many contributing factors, which may include being part of a single-parent family, having a mother who has little education, and living in a poor neighborhood without easy access to healthy foods, she said in the news release.
But, even as these risk factors accumulated, the study found, low-income children's participation in regular high-quality family mealtimes made a difference in their weight status. "Three to four extra minutes per meal made a healthy weight more likely," she explained in the news release.
In the study, researchers observed 200 family mealtimes, testing the cumulative effects of socioeconomic factors and mealtime behaviors of families with children in elementary school. They noted the importance families placed on sharing a meal, efforts made to schedule family meals, and whether the family attached special meaning to this practice.
Mealtime behavior can be engaging and holistic
Socioeconomic circumstances mattered. Children raised in single-parent households were more likely to be overweight or obese than kids raised in two-parent families, she said in the news release. And, at the neighborhood level, high concentrations of children living in poverty were associated with greater risks for childhood overweight or obesity in the home, she added.
Families who said that shared mealtimes are an important part of family life and have special meaning for them were less likely to have an obese child. And families who talked more together and interacted more positively during the meal were more likely to have healthy-weight children.
Teaching low-income families how to make the most of family mealtimes is a workable intervention, Fiese noted in the news release. "This is something we can target and teach. It's much more difficult to change such factors as marital status, maternal education, or neighborhood poverty."
Quality of family interaction also mattered
It may not be enough to advise families that eating together four or more times weekly is beneficial if they don't have the time, resources, or ability to communicate positively with each other, she added according to the news release. Many low-income parents are pressured for time, meaning that planning ahead, budgeting, shopping, preparing a healthy meal, and then sitting down to enjoy it with their children is challenging, she said.
She recommends developing and delivering programming that includes information on the importance of shared family mealtimes, time management, stress management, parenting skills, cooking lessons, and shopping strategies. If parents are taught to value family mealtimes and learn to make them a priority, they can protect their children from the harmful effects of living in an environment with fewer resources, she said. "It's also important to recognize the increasing diversity of families and their sometimes complex living arrangements that may challenge their abilities to plan ahead and arrange a single time to communicate with each other," she added.
What's the potential benefits of eating at the same time together with your children?
The answer depends upon what distractions accompany the meal such as texting, TV, or each child eating different foods. Having dinner together scientists found in a new study doesn't make a strong family. In the study, scientists looked at teenagers who share meals with their parents.
In recent years, the search for ways for families to connect in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world has led back to the dinner table. But does eating together help teenagers feel healthier? The hypothesis focused on whether these adolescents score better on a range of indicators tapping health and well-being because they eat meals together with their parents or whether there are other environmental reasons for perceived health benefits (other than eating together)?
Because families eat together doesn't necessarily always mean that there's lots of laughter and joy at the table. There could be put-downs that contribute to digestive upsets among the children and other family members. So what actually contributes to health benefits in a family that does eat together?
Sharing foods that the children helped to prepare also is holistic
Researchers needed to examine how cooking the same types of food together and sharing foods that children helped cook working together with parents influence health. Also, studies need to consider whether taking a portion of food from the same serving dishes as the other family members influences health in some way.
In a new study, researchers have found that health and nutrition benefits of sitting down as a family to share food together at the table for a family meal aren't as strong or lasting as scientists thought, once the numerous factors and variables are controlled for.
Does eating together make a strong family only if everyone also gets along away from the table? New study questions the nature of perceived health benefits from eating at the same time together
Now this new Cornell University study questions the nature of this association, finding that the perceived benefits may not be as strong or as lasting once a number of factors are controlled, but which factors are most important? Check out the new Cornell University, Ithaca, NY study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family and noted in a May 29, 2012 news release, "Does dinner make a strong family, or does a strong family make dinner?"
In the past it appeared to nutritionists that the so-called family meal brought people closer. For years scientists thought that the family that ate together were closer. In fact, the family meal in the past so often had emphasized as contributing to digestive health and relaxation. Illustrations often decorated packages of food showing the family meal at holiday times or even dinner time.
The family meal long has been encouraged for its social and health benefits. But now in a new study, the benefits turned out to only be perceived by appearance and not found to have lasting health benefits after all. Check out the article, Dinner together does not a healthy family make.
The association between family meals and teen well-being is due to other aspects of the environment at home, new study found
"We find that most of the association between family meals and teen well-being is due to other aspects of the family environment. Analyses that follow children over time lend even weaker evidence for causal effects of family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being,said Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and lead author of the study, "Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family meals on adolescent and young adult well-being," according to the May 29, 2012 news release, "Does dinner make a strong family, or does a strong family make dinner?" The study appeared in the June 2012 edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Musick and co-author Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that the ability to manage a regular family dinner is in part facilitated by family resources such as time and money, and in part a proxy for other family characteristics, including time together, closeness, and communication. Families with both biological parents present, a non-employed mother, higher income, and better family relationships ate together more frequently.
The quality of family relationships at the table is important
Controlling for the quality of family relationships in particular explained much of the family dinner's association with teen depressive symptoms, substance use, and delinquency – three factors typically examined in family meal studies. Only some of these associations held up to analyses of adolescent outcomes over time.
The study accounts for aspects of the family environment that differentiate families on the basis of how often they eat together, and it's the first to use a fixed-effects approach that focuses on how changes in family dinners relate to changes in adolescent outcomes. Estimates are based on a sample of about 18,000 children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health.
Meals are one positive, regular way for parents to connect with their kids
"Meals may afford a regular and positive context for parents to connect with children emotionally, to monitor their social and academic activities, and to convey values and expectations. This is what we suspect is driving any causal relationship between family dinners and child well being.
"Family dinners also appear to be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities. And it's unclear how well family dinners would work unbundled from the rest of that package," said Musick in the news release.
Which elements of mealtime are best for bonding with your children?
The authors add that future work needs to go further in assessing which elements of mealtime may be most salient, looking beyond how often families eat together to examine whether talking, television, video games, the tone of conversation at the table, texting, praise, eating the same food, or helping in the kitchen mediate or moderate the potential benefits of mealtime.
For more information, see my other Examiner.com article on eating together as a family and the type of background music that may be conducive to relaxation, "Food and music can be nourishing medicine for the family that eats together." You also may want to explore the type of music conducive to relaxation. Browse one of the articles on eating together and relaxing, ambient, or slow-beat classical music in the background in my paperback book, Neurotechnology with Culinary Memoirs from the Daily Nutrition and Health Reporter.