There is evidence that family meals can help prevent eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. This is important because there are a lot of forces increasing the risk of eating disorders right now. And if there’s something parents can do to reduce the risk, it’s a huge opportunity.
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.
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.
This means that when we double the number of family meals per week, we cut the risk of disordered eating in half. Since eating disorders are a quick and easy step from disordered eating, family meals can really help.
When is it an eating disorder and when is it healthy?
Eating disorders are complex and involve multiple factors. And while eating disorders are much more than a diet, almost all eating disorders begin with a diet. That’s why families that prevent diet behavior (also called “disordered eating”) are more likely to prevent eating disorders.
Dieting can be a little tricky to spot today, since most people use code words like “getting healthy” in place of “diet.” But let’s just say that anytime you see behaviors like reduced food consumption, increased exercise, and behaviors like weighing, tracking, and measuring, it’s most likely what we would call “diet” behavior, AKA disordered eating.
If you’re confused, that makes sense. We’ve been told that health is measured by what we eat and how much we weigh. We’ve been taught that someone who eats quinoa and kale, works out, and weighs less is healthier than someone who eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, walks to work, and weighs more.
But this is where it gets tricky.
That person who is eating “pure” foods and weighs less may have a life-threatening eating disorder and struggle with depression and anxiety. They may plan every meal and stop eating out with friends and family because they need to control their plates. They may feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.
The person who eats everyday food and weighs more may enjoy their daily walk to work and get plenty of rest and sleep. They may meet up with friends and family to play a spontaneous game of Frisbee and eat a delicious meal. They may feel fulfilled and satisfied.
Which person is healthier?
Just because we’ve been taught that weight is the best indicator of health doesn’t mean it’s true. When we measure health by what’s on a person’s plate or what shows on the scale, we miss the whole point of health. Health is not a number – it is nothing we can measure. Health is the ability to enjoy life and feel positive.
A healthy plan
The good news is that it’s never too late for parents to create a diet-free home. And the work can begin with family meals. Family meals can prevent eating disorders by cutting off disordered eating before it begins. You can relax about exactly what’s on the plate, how much everyone eats, and what people weigh. Instead you can rest assured that the healthiest thing you can do for your family is to feed them together in a pleasant environment. Here’s how to get started:
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 the latest superfood.
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. Get it on the table
It’s not easy to think up meals for everyone. Here’s the easiest method I’ve heard of to plan meals. First, let’s define a meal. Dietitians define a meal as about 50% starch, 25% protein, 25% vegetable/fruit, plus fat. I know the low-carb thing has been going on for a long time, but unless a doctor has specifically put you on that diet for a reason other than weight loss, it’s not recommended by anyone who understands disordered eating and eating disorders.
This balance of starch, protein, vegetable/fruit and fat is essential to a healthy body and mind. And once you get in the rhythm of planning meals this way, things get easier. Here are some examples:
- Buttered pasta, tomato sauce with meat or tempeh, salad
- Baked potato with cheese, turkey chili, cole slaw
- Rice, fish, and stir-fry vegetables with sesame oil sauce on top
- Tortillas, beans, ground meat, cheese, and pico de gallo
- Cheeseburgers, broccoli
- Pizza, chicken breast, sliced cucumber
Those are dinner ideas, but this meal balance applies to all meals of the day. So breakfast might be waffles, full-fat yogurt, bacon, and fruit. Lunch can be a turkey sandwich with mayo and cheese, and a tangerine.
Once you get in the swing of planning family meals, you can mix and match your elements. But every meal should have all four elements. You’ll find that full meals will reduce hunger throughout the day. You should all still have 2-3 snacks to keep you going. But the most likely outcome of eating full meals like this is there will be a reduction in binge eating. Binge eating is almost always a natural response to food restriction and hunger, so this meal program will remove that problem.
4. 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.
5. Create a more structured family meal environment
If you are succeeding at the 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 if they continue to be a distraction.
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 making a statement: 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.
And please, if you are dieting in any way. This means if you are restricting foods and weighing yourself with a weight goal in mind. Please stop. It’s very hard to raise kids who are free from disordered eating when parents are modeling disordered eating. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is important.
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. Family meals won’t solve every problem, but they can go a long way towards reducing and preventing eating disorders.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.