20th December 2012 - Want your children to eat more fruit and veg? The answer seems to be as simple as sitting down at a table for family meals together.
University of Leeds researchers looked at the meals of 1,516 children from primary schools in London using special diet questionnaires filled in by parents. The average age of the children was eight and there was a diverse ethnic mixture with English being a second language for 46% of children.
Children from families who reported 'always' eating a family meal around a table together on average ate 125g more fruit and veg than those families who said they never ate together.
5-a-day targets were boosted even with families who only had meals together 'sometimes'. Those children ate an average of 95g more fruit and vegetables than those who never have family mealtimes.
On average, children in the study ate 3.7 portions a day of fruit and veg or 293g. Those who had family meals together consumed the most.
Experts say the home environment is where a child's dietary habits are developed and they take their healthy eating cues from parents.
The NHS Change4Life programme advises families to eat together when they can, as children like to copy their parents, brothers, sisters and friends in eating a variety of foods.
However, parents need to set good healthy eating examples for the fruit and veg habits to rub off, according to the study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Children whose parents ate fruit and veg every day ate an average of 88g more than those whose parents never or rarely ate fruit and veg.
Helping children eat was also a factor. Cutting up fruit and veg for a child encouraged them to eat around 44g more.
Variety also helped, with fruit and veg intake increasing by 5g for every additional type of produce on the menu at home.
Traditional family mealtimes
A 2011 survey of 1,354 people for the insurance firm Cornish Mutual found 48% of British households do not share a meal every day.
So, is a family sitting down at a table for a meal an old fashioned concept? "I think it is still thriving," study researcher, Meaghan Christian, from the Nutritional Epidemiology Group, School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds tells us. "A lot of the children we looked at, every night they were eating a family meal together. It is something that people are still doing and we're showing positive results as a consequence of doing that."
She says it is important for parents to set a good example: "If you sit at a table together with your children, it will increase the children's fruit and veg intake. If parents themselves eat fruit with their children, that will also increase their fruit intake. If parents eat fruit and veg every day, that will increase their children's fruit intake. This is a really good way to get children to eat more fruit and vegetables."
There are even benefits if you can't manage a family mealtime every day of the week. "Even just once a week, Sunday lunch, you're more likely to have a portion more of fruit and vegetables."
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: Family meals can help children reach their 5 A Day: a cross-sectional survey of children's dietary intake from London primary schools, news release.
Meaghan Christian, Nutritional Epidemiology Group, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds
Cornish Mutual/DCA Public Relations: Half of UK families are not eating together
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