‘Family meals help children to form healthy eating habits’
What were your findings in the two studies?
In 2018, we started by investigating family meals from a purely quantitative perspective. We analysed 57 international studies with 200,000 participants to find out the extent to which parents and/or families can influence children’s eating habits and, by extension, their body weight. All the studies used the Body Mass Index (BMI) and the number of portions of fruit and vegetables, or fast food and soft drinks, consumed every day as indicators of healthy and unhealthy nutrition. The findings showed that children who frequently eat with their families have a healthier diet and are generally less at risk of being overweight. This result was relatively consistent around the globe. Parents act as nutritional gatekeepers: they can create a beneficial learning environment at the dinner table by setting an example of healthy eating patterns themselves.
In other words, does it make a difference how often families eat together?
The results of our initial analysis suggest that it does, yes. However, it was not clear which psychological and social factors were most relevant in this respect. That is why we decided to focus more on the question of what it is exactly that makes family meals so good for people’s health. We investigated this question in the second meta-analysis in 2019, which looked at 50 studies with 29,000 participants. We were able to identify six factors that correlate with better nutritional health in childhood and adolescence, finding that the quality of communal mealtimes is more important than their quantity.
What are these factors and how can they be incorporated into everyday life?
Of course, the quality of the food plays an important role: fresh, homemade food is generally seen in a positive light. The duration of the meal and the atmosphere while it is being eaten are also relevant factors. The meal should be free from stress and conflict. Ideally, everyone involved should be able to consciously enjoy the time they spend together. It is equally important that parents are active role models: they should lead by example and eat the same food as their children. As trivial as it may sound, switching off the TV is an additional factor. Finally, we also observed how important it is to involve children when preparing meals. Helping with the planning, shopping, and preparation can make a positive difference to their diet. One possible explanation is something known as the IKEA effect: psychological research shows that people view an object more positively if they were involved in making it. This can also be applied to children who help prepare fruit and vegetables, which increases the likelihood that they will enjoy eating them, or enjoy eating them even more, as a result.
If parents work full-time and children are engaged in ever more extracurricular activities, the family will often only meet in passing. How relevant is the concept of eating together as a family today and how realistic is it that we can put it into practice?
As a matter of fact, family meals have become more frequent in Germany over the last ten years. This was the conclusion of the EsKiMo-II study published in 2019 by the Robert Koch Institute. It is worrying, however, that this trend is not reflected in families with low socioeconomic status. In the AOK family study published in 2016, families also stated that the best time they spent together was during mealtimes enjoyed as a family.
In our modern society, there are a number of ways in which families can eat together. No matter whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner, any kind of communal meal has a positive effect. Over the course of our analysis, we also found that it is not always necessary for the whole family to sit down at the table together. This would simply be unrealistic nowadays. If a father is able to have breakfast with one of his children in the mornings, that’s a good step in itself. It doesn’t always have to be a feast – a simple meal that can be flexibly integrated into everyday life is perfectly adequate.
What might a good meal look like? Do you have any practical tips?
The aim should not be ‘we have to eat together every evening’, but rather ‘when and how can we manage to get together to share a meal?’. The food itself does not have to be elaborate; quick, convenient options are just as good. If preparing the meal becomes a stress factor in the run-up to the event, it makes it hard to create a positive atmosphere. Avoiding arguments and controversial topics at the family dining table also helps to maintain this positive mood.
The six factors we have identified for healthy family meals do not represent a set of rules. Instead, they are intended to serve as guidelines. How they are implemented is dependent on the specific circumstances at play, and the important thing is to find out what is really feasible for your own family.
Can the positive effects be seen in other areas besides nutritional health?
Some studies suggest that eating meals together is associated with better school performance and a lower risk of depression and eating disorders. The ritual of sitting together and eating together strengthens individual family members, improves family cohesion and makes families healthier because it provides space for discussion and interaction.
Throughout Germany, increasing numbers of children are enrolled in full-day schools. Here at Phorms, children also attend school all day. What role do teachers play in relation to nutrition?
Experimental studies have shown that teachers can also serve as role models when it comes to nutrition. If they eat fruit and vegetables at a communal meal and show that they like these foods, it is more likely that the children will also enjoy eating them. In other words, there is evidence that the positive effects of eating meals as a family can also be achieved in schools if teachers play their part in this. This is a very interesting point, considering how much time children spend at school these days and how many meals they eat while in the care of their teachers.
Dr Mattea Dallacker
is a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher in the field of adaptive rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Her research there focuses on the question of how to improve decision-making relating to health.