Sometimes in life, we find a straightforward solution to a complex problem standing right in front of us; or, in this case, sitting at our dining-room table. The complex problem is childhood obesity, and part of the solution may lie in what happens during dinners at home with our families.
Over the past few years, research has confirmed what many of us have known intuitively for generations: Sharing regular family meals with our children is good for the health of everyone around the table.
Research has confirmed that children and adolescents who have three or more meals a week as a family are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns then those who share fewer than three meals a week with their families.
Why is that?
When we cook at home, the foods we prepare tend to have less salt, fat, and calories than those we eat outside the home. And while children and adults can overeat at their own table, home-served portion sizes tend to be smaller than the portions served at restaurants. Research shows people tend to eat what's in front of them, so if we finish off a burger and fries (a meal that totals about 1,000 calories), we've eaten about half the calories we should consume in the entire day.
There are other benefits to cooking and eating at home, such as better communication.
When my two adult children were younger and living at home, my wife and I found that a family dinner was an opportunity to have a conversation about the day -- what went well and what didn't go so well.
At dinner, your children are a captive audience, and this may be your best chance of the day to check in. It's harder to do when your children are teens, and may have other activities in the evening, but we still managed to dine together three or four times a week.
There are also lesser-known benefits.
Studies of teenagers show that those who take part in regular family meals are less likely to be depressed, less likely to use tobacco and alcohol, and earn slightly better grades than teens who don't share family meals. And for those parents who think their teens would rather not be around them, focus groups show the majority of teens actually enjoy eating meals with their parents.
I often encourage parents, if they can, to have their children help them prepare the family meal. If you have little ones, you may not want them chopping vegetables with a knife, but they can help you mix the salad.
Cooking and preparing a meal together is a great opportunity to educate your children about the nutritional value of foods, and picky eaters are more likely to eat what they've had a hand in preparing.
A family meal doesn't have to be fancy. Keep your recipes simple, and have some fun trying new ways to prepare healthy foods. If you can't manage it three nights a week, start with a goal of one or two meals at home together -- and if you're lucky, you can get the youngsters to clean up afterward.
Dr. Scott Gee is a pediatrician and medical director for regional health education at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.