By: Kathleen Berchelmann, MD, FAAP
Eating at least three family meals together each week is associated with healthier kids, according to a study published in Pediatrics. This was a large meta-analysis of more than 180,000 children, a well-designed study for those of us that like science and data. But trying to put together a healthy meal between all your kids' extracurricular activities and the business of family evenings can be very challenging.
Here are 5 ways that family meals keep kids healthy:
Family meals prevent excessive weight gain: Eating 3 or more family meals (meaning at least one parent is present and the meal is prepared at home) results in a 12% lower likelihood of children being overweight.
Family meals teach healthy food choices: The eating habits of childhood often last a lifetime. Families that ate at least three meals together each had a 20% decrease in unhealthy food choices. Teaching your children to enjoy healthy foods rather than junk foods is a gift that will stay with them through adulthood.
Family meals prevent eating disorders: Children and adolescents who ate family meals at least three times per week had a 35% reduction in disordered eating habits such as anorexia and bulimia.
Family dinner improves social-emotional health, too: The ability to understand emotions, express empathy, demonstrate self-regulation, and form positive relationships with peers and adults is called social-emotional health. Young children with high social-emotional health adapt well to the school environment and perform well academically, even in long term studies. Guess which kids had the best social-emotional health? The ones who ate family dinner together regularly and talked about their day, told stories, etc.
Family dinner can help kids deal with cyberbullying: About one-fifth of adolescents are victims of cyberbullying, putting them at risk for depression, substance abuse, and a host of other concerns. But adolescents who eat regular family dinners handle cyberbullying better and are less likely to engage in substance abuse or develop psychiatric health concerns, even after their involvement in face-to-face bullying is taken into account.
Trying to get the dinner on the table between sports practices and evening meetings is hard to balance. It's so easy to just pick up fast food and have a picnic dinner at the soccer field. But, fast-food bad habits are easy to start and hard to break.
Here's some tried-and-true tricks to keep family dinner a reality on busy evenings:
Freezer cooking: On nights when you are making an all-out dinner, double it and freeze the other half. If you know that Thursday nights are always crazy, but Tuesdays are easier, plan to shop for and cook a double meal on Tuesday that you can eat again on Thursday.
Love your crock pot: Get all your cooking done earlier in the day, plug it in, and have it all ready to go at dinner time.
Use paper plates: Don't be afraid to use disposable plates and cups at home. One of the appeals of fast food is easy clean-up and no dishes. It's better to eat healthy food on paper plates than buy fast food.
Additional Information on HealthyChildren.org:
About Dr. Berchelmann:
Kathleen Berchelmann, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician at Mercy Children's Hospital, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The University of Missouri School of Medicine, and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Kathleen and her husband are raising six children.