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Family mealtimes teach good nutrition

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[JULY 16, 2004]  URBANA -- Regular family mealtimes have become one of the chief casualties of overscheduling, said Angela Wiley, specialist in family studies at the University of Illinois. When families don't make this mealtime connection, she believes children suffer nutritionally and emotionally.

Wiley believes families should try to have at least four shared dinners a week because of the communication, relaxing and renewing of family bonds that occur when families eat together. Many teachable moments happen at mealtime.

And parents have a vital role to play as nutritional role models, she said. Children who eat meals with their families learn more than just table manners.

She cited research that showed that children with slender parents have a 10 percent chance of being overweight, while children with two overweight parents have an 80 percent chance of being overweight.

"Children really do model their eating patterns on those of their parents," she said.

Children who eat meals with their families tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, more foods that are higher in important nutrients and fiber, and fewer prepared foods that are high in fat and high in sugar, she said.

They are also likely to consume more milk and dairy products, said Wiley. Recent studies have found that children who drink milk are less likely to be obese and develop insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

"When kids drink too many high-calorie, nutrient-free beverages like soda, they don't have room for nutrient-rich foods and beverages," Wiley said. Many researchers link the increase in snack and soda consumption to the obesity epidemic, she said.

Parents can encourage good eating habits at home with the decisions they make when they shop for groceries, the foods they choose to serve at mealtime and the snack foods they make available in the refrigerator.


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Wiley suggested involving the entire family in meal preparation because children are more likely to eat meals they help plan or prepare. Older children can plan menus, shop for groceries, and prepare main dishes or entire meals; younger children can chop vegetables; and very young children can tear lettuce or set the table.

Nutritious appetizers, such as carrots and dip, take the edge off children's hunger and ease the pressure on parents during the before-dinner rush hour.

Parents can also influence healthful food choices in restaurants -- even fast-food restaurants, she said. Parents should avoid high-fat or fried foods, use ketchup and other condiments sparingly, share desserts, and model taking part of a restaurant meal home when portions are enormous.

Wiley advocates establishing family guidelines for restaurant meals. These might include a choice of low-fat milk or water, giving children two or three nutritious foods to choose from, or deciding that every fifth meal out, children can order what they want within reason.

Most of all, the family life specialist urges parents not to give up on family mealtimes, no matter how hectic schedules are. Important information about nutrition and other values is communicated when families eat meals together, so parents should make eating together a priority, she said.

[University of Illinois news release]

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