parents can help prevent disordered eating with family meals

Want to raise healthy kids? Eat food together

There is a lot of pressure on parents today to raise “healthy” kids. Unfortunately, most of the time when people say “healthy,” they mean “thin.” In our society, those two words have become strongly linked, largely due to significant advertising expenditures by the $80 billion weight loss industry that really wants us to focus on body weight.

But “health” is much broader than a person’s weight. In fact, weight is an insignificant factor in mortality when a  person engages in healthy behaviors including getting enough sleep, exercising moderately, having a healthy (vs. disordered) relationship with food, managing stress, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and building strong interpersonal relationships.

Yes, there are of course foods that are more health-promoting than others. We all know that a diet based exclusively on Cheetos is not as “healthy” as a balanced diet including a variety of foods. But this can be explained as much by extremism as by nutrition. Did you know that a person who only eats raw, vegan foods may be equally unhealthy as the person eating Cheetos?

Health is not only about the food we put into our bodies – it is about our relationship with ourselves and our bodies. The good news is that parents don’t have to worry so much about the food itself as long as it is somewhat varied and some of the time it is natural/whole food.

The science of eating together

A study examined the association between family meal patterns and disordered eating, which is defined as unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, and chronic dieting, in adolescent girls and boys. We hope everyone can agree that “healthy” must be defined as a person who is not struggling with disordered eating.

The study found that more frequent family meals, placing a high priority on family meals, and a positive atmosphere at family meals are positively correlated with fewer cases of disordered eating.

For example, 18.1% of girls who reported 1-2 family meals per week engaged in extreme weight control behaviors compared with 8.8% of girls who reported 3-4 family meals per week. Researchers concluded that family meals have the potential to play an important role in the prevention of unhealthy eating behaviors among youth.

A healthy plan

Good news! If you think that having a healthy child means spending all your money at Whole Foods, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, low-carb foods, and spending hours in the kitchen cooking your family perfectly-balanced meals, you can relax! Instead, focus on the following elements to raise a healthy person:

1. Make family meals a priority

The study found that the most consistent factor protecting our kids from disordered eating was families that made eating together a priority. Of course, we understand this can be challenging. But at least you don’t have to add this to worrying about whether the meal itself is “healthy” – all you have to do is place priority on sitting down as a family to eat together.

Prioritizing family meals doesn’t have to mean dinnertime. If dinner won’t work, can you all wake up a little earlier and have family breakfasts? Remember – the food doesn’t matter as much as the action of sitting down together to eat. So load up on easy-to-make foods and focus on the gathering rather than the food.

When you prioritize eating together as a family, you are prioritizing the family unit. You are demonstrating the value of human connection as it relates to food. Don’t let our modern lifestyles fool you: humans have always shared food together as a signal of peace, belonging and connection. Our kids’ health depends on these things much more than organic vegetables.

2. Eat together frequently

The word “frequently” will vary from family to family, but we should all be able to commit to a minimum of two meals together every week. A more ideal goal is a minimum of four meals eaten together as a family.

You may have to adjust schedules. You may have to mix the times of meals. Sometimes, a “meal” may be an afternoon or late-night snack. The idea is to commit to sitting together with food as often as possible for your family.

This will get easier over time. Once you make the commitment and get over the initial panic over how you can possibly achieve the goal of four meals per week, you may find it surprisingly easy to make it happen. If necessary, start a calendar to track your meals together and give yourselves stickers so you can all see how you are doing in meeting your healthy goals of eating food together.

If you can’t get the whole family together, don’t give up! Gather as many members as possible whenever possible. Even if just two people are in the house, they should eat together, not separately.

3. Create a positive atmosphere at family meals

We all have moods. We all have bad days. And sometimes in families, we will identify one person as a trouble-maker and focus our energy on correcting that person during mealtimes. Control the urge!

If you had a bad day – if you are in a bad mood – if one of your kids is acting up – suspend all of that to focus on making the family meal a positive experience. The whole purpose of the meal is to bring you together, so resist your urges to correct and control during mealtimes.

It may take time, but encourage everyone to think consciously about approaching family meals from a positive mindset. In fact, make this an explicit goal of the family meal. Empower every member of the family to kindly but assertively speak up if anyone (including a parent) starts bringing negativity to the meal.

Think of yourself as the captain of the ship during mealtimes, and feel free to steer if necessary to make sure that each person is included in the conversation. If the ship captain idea doesn’t float your boat, then just imagine that you are hosting a dinner party with friends. You want to help everyone feel at ease and comfortable at your dinner party, otherwise it’s a flop.

4. Create a more structured family meal environment

If you are succeeding at the three points above, then you may consider how you can make your family meal environment more structured. Structured meals have been correlated with healthier behavior, so it’s worth considering how you can improve in this area.

First of all, turn off all TVs and electronic devices. Keep phones, tablets, and other distractions off the table – literally. In fact, keep them at least 10 ft away from the table and switch them to airplane mode.

Second, gather around a single dining surface. It could be a dining table, a kitchen island, a coffee table, or a cardboard box. The goal is to have everyone’s plates and glasses sharing the same surface at the same time. This builds the communal concept of family meals. It makes a difference in how each person perceives the value of your shared meal.

That’s the minimum structure required. Some families may enjoy bringing out the fine table linens, dishes, etc. and (finally) use them. They light candles, set the dining room table, and dim the lights a little bit. Then they may bring takeout food to the table and dig in.

Remember, it’s not what you eat, but how you eat (communally) that matters. The idea is that you are saying to the world: we are a family, and we are sharing food now. If you are eating takeout, try to avoid each person eating out of their own takeout container, and instead share the dishes. If you have cooked something, it’s OK if some people prefer raw vs. cooked veggies, but in general, you want to all be eating roughly the same meal.

With more attention directed towards increasing family meal frequency and less attention spent on worrying about kids’ food choices and body weight, parents can help their children become healthy adults who are free of eating disorders.

Read more: Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? Neumark-Sztainer D, et al. J Adolesc Health. 2004.

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