Regular family meals promote healthy eating habits

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (Nov. 9, 2004)-- It's not only the routine of sitting down to dinner as a family, but the importance, structure, and atmosphere of family meals that may help steer adolescent girls from eating disorders. University of Minnesota researchers found that girls who ate regular family meals in a structured and positive environment were less likely to exhibit extreme weight control behaviors such as diet pill use, vomiting, and chronic dieting. Their research was published in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The meal itself provides an opportunity to model healthy eating habits to children, and it also gives parents the chance to check in with their children, said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., professor of epidemiology and primary author of the article. She recommended parents keep the conversation positive and non-confrontational, especially if their children have issues surrounding food.

"Since society has so much influence on adolescents because of the high prevalence of obesity and the pressure to be skinny, many girls are turning to unhealthy ways of controlling their weight," Neumark-Sztainer said. "Prioritizing structured family meals that take place in a positive environment can protect girls from destructive eating habits."

She added that families can get creative with how they schedule meals. If parents work outside the home, they can sometimes schedule family breakfast more easily than dinner. "It doesn't have to be a home-cooked meal--the idea is to bring people together," she said. Neumark-Sztainer studied 4,746 Twin Cities adolescents and interviewed them about their eating habits and how often they ate meals with their families.

Key findings in the study include:

  • Girls who ate three to four family meals per week were at about one-third the risk for extreme weight control practices.
  • Girls who ate five family meals per week were at a

  • Contact: Sara E. Buss
    University of Minnesota

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