Eating meals together as a family, even if only once or twice a week, increases children's daily fruit and vegetable intake to near the recommended 5 A Day, according to researchers at the University of Leeds.
The study of primary school-aged children, funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme, also suggests parental consumption of fruit and vegetables and cutting up portions of these foods boosted children's intake. It is published today in the British Medical Journal's Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Overall, this study found that 63% of children did not consume the World Health Organisation recommended amount of five portions (400g) a day.
Children who always ate a family meal together at a table consumed 125g (1.5 portions) more fruit and vegetables on average than children who never ate with their families. Even those who reported eating together only once or twice a week consumed 95g (1.2 portions) more than those who never ate together.
"Even if it's just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating. Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences," says Professor Janet Cade, of the University's School of Food Science and Nutrition, who supervised the study.
In families where parents reported eating fruit and vegetables every day, children had on average one portion (80g) more than children whose parents never or rarely ate fruit and vegetables.
"Modern life often prevents the whole family from sitting round the dinner table, but this research shows that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets of our families," says Meaghan Christian, who conducted the study as part of her PhD.
Children whose parents always or sometimes cut up fruit and vegetables for them consumed, on average, half a portion (40g) and quarter of a portion more, respectively, than children of parents who never cut up their fruit and vegetables.
"There are more benefits to having a family meal together than just the family's health. They provide conversational time for families, incentives to plan a meal, and an ideal environment for parents to model good manners and behaviour," adds Professor Cade.
It is estimated that one in ten children in the UK aged 2-10 is obese. In the last four years the Department of Health has spent over £3.3million on the 5 A Day campaign and a further £75 million on the Change4Life campaign, designed to encourage families to improve their lifestyle through diet and exercise.
"Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be more prominent in public health campaigns. Future work could be aimed at improving parental intake or encouraging parents to cut up or buy snack-sized fruit and vegetables," adds Meaghan Christian.
This study includes dietary measurements from 2,389 children attending 52 primary schools from the boroughs of Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Sutton, Lewisham, Lambeth, Merton and Newham in Greater London. Diet was assessed using a questionnaire separated into a School Food Diary and a Home Food Diary.
The Home Food Diary also included questions about the home food environment and parents attitudes to fruit and vegetables, for example "on average, how many nights a week does your family eat at a table?" and "do you cut up fruit and vegetables for your child to eat?"
- Meaghan S Christian, Charlotte E L Evans, Neil Hancock, Camilla Nykjaer, Janet E Cade. Family meals can help children reach their 5 A Day: a cross-sectional survey of children's dietary intake from London primary schools. J Epidemiol Community Health, 19 December 2012 DOI: 10.1136/jech-2012-201604
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