After analyzing 17 studies that examined childhood obesity, eating disorders, and family meals, doctors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discovered that sitting down to a family meal three or more times per week resulted in a 12-percent reduction in the odds that a child would wind up overweight and a 20-percent reduction in the odds that he or she would develop an eating disorder. Frequent family meals also led to a 20-percent reduction in the likelihood of a child's eating junk food and a 24-percent increase in his or her eating healthy food.
It's more than just physical health that benefits from family meals, especially when it comes to older children. Past studies have found that breaking bread together improves teenager–parent communication and that family meals can help adolescents develop healthier long-term eating habits.
But in the world of 9-to-5 jobs, after-school sports practices, piano lessons, and all the other commitments families face today, squeezing in dinner together can be challenging. Need help? Here are a few tips:
• Make it a morning affair. The study authors didn't specify a particular mealtime that yielded healthier children. If dinner is too much of a scramble, get up and have breakfast together.
• Plan ahead. Reserve a weekend morning or afternoon to prep healthy ingredients that take a long time to cook, things like rice, dried beans, and even oatmeal for breakfast, so that you don't get home in the evening only to realize that ordering a pizza is your only fast, manageable option for a "family meal."
• Plan even farther ahead and then freeze it. Casseroles and soups will last up to three months in the freezer, making them ideal "frozen dinners" for those weeks when even weekend mornings are hard to come by. For recipe ideas, see Dana Jacobi's new book Cook & Freeze (Rodale, 2010)
For more tips and ideas for family meals see:
Sustainable Chef Offers Ways to Make Healthy Cooking Easier
5 Quick-and-Easy Family-Dinner Meal Plans
Make a Week's Worth of Healthy Dinners…Today
Eating with Teens Breeds Well-Fed Adults
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