What Has Happened to the Family Meal?

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What used to be an acceptable practice – sharing a meal together at the /files/storyimages/of the work or school day has been officially replaced with the fast-food drive thru.  The demise of the family meal has led to a variety of social, intellectual and behavioral consequences.  Unfortunately, these effects are seen in all cultural and socioeconomic groups.  According to the latest research on the topic, these effects range from a decrease in dietary quality of foods eaten by our children, to a decrease in academic performance and possibly an increase in risk-taking behaviors (1 – 7).


THE FAMILY RITUAL

The sharing of food at mealtimes has been a symbol of family unity, love, connections and communications.  Because of the social changes that have occurred in the family such as maternal employment, single parenthood and the stress due to hectic schedules and trying to balance work, family and children’s activities, the ritual of the family meal is slowly disappearing.  

Although some may view the family meal as an outdated ritual, surveys have indicated that more than 80 percent of parents believe the family meal is extremely important. In addition, a national survey revealed that adolescents also viewed the family meal as important.  In fact, this survey revealed that 79 percent of the adolescents cited eating dinner at home as one of the top-rated activities that they like to do with their parents (1).


WHY ARE FAMILY MEALS IMPORTANT?

Research has suggested the family meal has a positive impact on the dietary quality of the food ingested; language acquisition and academic performance and can help reduce risk-taking behaviors.  In addition, family meals can facilitate family interaction, communication and a sense of unity.  

A number of studies have found a positive association between frequency of eating family dinner and dietary quality in older children and adolescents (3, 6, 7).  In addition, the frequency of eating meals together as a family has been associated with greater intakes of fruits, vegetables and nutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamins and fiber, as well as less fried food, soft drinks, saturated fat and trans fat (3,6).  Videon and Manning reported among adolescents, parental presence at the evening meal was associated with a lower risk of poor consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy foods as well as the likelihood of skipping breakfast (7). 

Research has shown a correlation between frequent family dinners and reduced risk that a teen will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs.  The research revealed teens who have dinner with their families two nights a week or less have at least twice the risk of substance abuse as teens who have frequent family dinners (1.54 vs. 0.78) (4).


WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING ON THE HOMEFRONT?

Studies have shown that about 1/3 of children and adolescents from age 9 to 18 years old eat dinner with their family every day (2, 3). Sixty-one percent of teens have dinner with their family at least five times per week (4). Almost 1/4 to 1/3 (22-32 percent) of children and adolescents (9–17 years old) report eating dinner together with their family rarely or only a few days each week (2, 3).

The older the child gets there is steady decline in the amount of family meals eaten.  According to Neumark-Sztainer et al, students in middle and junior high school eat more family meals together (mean 5.7) than students in high school (mean 3.5) (2).


CAN FAMILY MEALS HELP PREVENT OBESITY?

As obesity increases in our children, efforts are underway to look at all possible efforts to help prevent obesity.  The family meal can offer the child a planned time to eat, decreasing the grazing on nutrient-poor foods that can lead to a higher calorie intake.  In addition, the family meal can promote an improved intake of nutrient-dense foods.  Parents can role model healthy eating behaviors as well as healthy relationships with food.  The family meal should be just that – a meal where the family focuses on the family and eating – not what’s on television.  By focusing on the meal, hunger and satiety cues can be recognized.  In addition the family meal can foster the sense of belonging.    


INSTITUTING THE FAMILY MEAL IS NOT EASY IN TODAY’S WORLD

It’s not easy to put a quality family meal on the table when you are working, working out and your family is involved in after-school activities. However, armed with a microwave and/or a crockpot, and a little bit of planning, a family meal can be a happening that doesn’t require hours in the kitchen.  If you are new to crockpot cooking, there are a number of really good cookbooks available. Some examples include Better Homes and Garden Simple Slow Cooker Recipes, Better Homes and Garden Low-Carb Slow Cooker Recipes and Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook (does not contain the nutritional information on recipes). 


MAKING THE FAMILY MEAL A PRIORITY

  • Planning: Plan meals ahead of time.  Start by planning a weekly dinner menu.  Keep an inventory of quick-to-fix foods in your kitchen such as brown rice, pasta, bread, frozen fruits and vegetables and potatoes.
  • Shopping: When time is more precious than money, buy ingredients that are already prepared such as pre-washed salad vegetables, chicken breast in pieces for stir fry, and pre-shredded cheeses to be used as toppings.  Shop at a familiar store so you can make it through faster or shop online (www.ValuMarkets.com) and pick-up the groceries on the way home from work.
  • Cooking: Focus on preparing only one meal per day and keep the other meals simple.  Make sure you have grab-and-go foods such as yogurt, fruit, bagels, peanut butter, sandwich fixings, soups, string cheese and nuts like almonds for those “unplanned meals.”  Sp/files/storyimages/most of your time on one entree per meal and then use simple accompaniments such as frozen vegetables, bread and fresh fruit drizzled with yogurt for dessert. 
  • Cleaning: To save on clean-up time, limit the number of bowls, pans and serving dishes.  Mix, cook, and serve in the same dish whenever possible.  You can forego serving bowls and serve directly onto dinner plates for quicker clean up. Plus, make clean up a family affair.


Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N., is the publisher and nutrition editor of KHF.  She is the former sports nutrition consultant to the University of Louisville Athletic Department and the United States Navy SEALs.   Barbara is also the author of Fast Facts on Fast Food For Fast People (ISBN 0-9631538-6-2) and High Energy Eating Sports Nutrition Workbook for Active People (ISBN 0-9631538-5-4).  In addition, Barbara has a private practice specializing in sports nutrition, has a weekly health & fitness radio show on WKJK 1080 AM and is the nutrition/recovery editor for Performance Volleyball Conditioning. Barbara serves on the Board of The Mint Jubilee, Special Olympics Kentucky, the Louisville Youth Training Center and Fit Louisville and is a member of Greater Louisville, Inc. and NAWBO.

References

(1). Zollo P.  Getting Wiser to Teens: More Insights into Marketing to Teenagers.  Ithaca, NY New Strategist Publication, 2004.

(2).  Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Ackard D, et al.  Family meals among adolescents: Findings from a pilot study.  J Nutr Educ 2000; 32:335-40.

(3). Gillman MW, Rifas-Shirman SL, Frazier AL, et al.  Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents.  Arch Family Med 2000; 9:235 – 40.

(4). National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.  The importance of family dinners.  September 2003, Columbia University, New York. 

(5).  Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Ackard D, et al.  The “family meal:” Views of adolescents.  J Nutr Educ 2000; 32:329 – 34.

(6). Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Story M, et al.  Family meal patterns; Association with sociodemographic characteristics and improved dietary intake among adolescents.  J Am Diet Assoc 2003; 103; 317-22.

(7). Videon TM, and Manning CK.  Influences on adolescent eating patterns; The importance of family meals.  Journal of Adolescent Health 2003; 32:365 – 373.  



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