Family meals dish out a healthier future

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT

When our daughters were younger, we had a family ritual at our dinner table. Each of us would take a turn sharing the best part and the worst part of our day. While these highlights ran the gamut from the dramatic to the mundane, it was a way of bonding and staying connected in the midst of our busy lives. Dinner was always a healthy meal, but we enjoyed more than just the food.

As it turns out, research at the University of Minnesota has indicated that eating together as a family during the adolescent years is associated with lasting positive effects on future dietary habits. It seems that families who spent time together at meals tended to consume less soda and more nutrient-dense foods such as fruit and dark green leafy vegetables. Furthermore, the study showed that prioritizing family mealtimes when children were young led to more individuals consuming breakfast as adults. Eating “on-the-run” was significantly reduced, since social eating behaviors had been positively reinforced in the early years.

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The good news doesn’t end there. Such communal dining fostered better food choices overall, as these adolescents entered young adulthood. Both males and females documented higher daily intakes of calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber.

Making dinner time a family event, even if the food being served is simple, encourages a healthy attitude toward eating. Children model the behaviors they see at home; adolescents who see their parents buying, preparing and consuming healthy foods are more apt to eat healthy foods themselves, apparently even after they leave home. While the dynamic of a set mealtime can be challenging for busy families, especially those whose children are involved in after-school sports and activities, striving for a group dinner at least two or three times a week can make great strides towards imprinting lifelong healthy eating habits.

One way to encourage family dinners is to create a “theme night” once a month. Decide on a menu in advance — Mexican night for Cinco de Mayo, for example, or a special selection of green vegetables for St. Patrick’s Day — and plan together. Involving young family members in the preparation can enhance the positive effects of healthy dining. To quote the popular advertisement on the children’s TV station Nick at Nite, “Share more than meals at the family table!”

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center.