Adding minutes to family mealtime can help keep childhood obesity at bay

By Lawrence LeBlond

With the ever-present epidemic that is childhood obesity, it makes sense for parents to find ways to help teach their kids about healthy eating. A new study from the University of Illinois wants to help get that message across, especially to low-income families.

The researchers, led by Barbara H. Fiese, director of University of Illinois’ Family Resiliency Program, said when lower income families devote an extra three or four minutes to regular family mealtimes, it helps their children better learn to achieve and maintain normal waistlines.

“Children whose families engaged with each other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than kids who left the table after 15 to 17 minutes,” said Fiese in a statement. “Over time, those extra minutes per meal add up and become really powerful.”

Childhood obesity in low-income households is a very complex issue, she added. There are many contributing factors, including being in a single-parent family, having a mother with little education, and living in poor neighborhoods with less access to healthy foods.

But, even as these risk factors accumulated, low-income children’s participation in regular high-quality family mealtimes made a difference in their weight levels, the study found.

In Fiese’s study, her and her colleagues observed mealtimes of 200 families, gathering data on the cumulative effects of socioeconomic factors and mealtime behaviors of families with children in elementary school. The authors noted the importance of several mealtime factors, including sharing a meal, scheduling family meals, and the attachment of special meaning to mealtime practices.

The authors found that socioeconomic circumstances mattered greatly when it came to childhood obesity in regards to length of mealtime. Children raised in a single-parent home were more likely to be overweight or obese than kids with two parents in the household. And when factoring in the neighborhood level, high concentrations of children living in poverty were associated with greater childhood obesity risks in the home.

Fiese and her colleagues pointed out that the quality of interaction at mealtimes also mattered. Families who said that their shared mealtimes are an important part of family life and have special meaning for them were less likely to have children that were obese. And families who talked more during mealtimes and interacted more positively were more likely to have children with normal waistlines.

Teaching low-income families how to make mealtime more important is a work in progress, Fiese noted.

“This is something we can target and teach. It’s much more difficult to change such factors as marital status, maternal education, or neighborhood poverty,” she added.

However, Fiese said that it may not be enough to advise families that eating together four or more times weekly is beneficial if they do not have the time, resources, or ability to communicate positively with each other. Many low-income parents are pressured for time, meaning that planning ahead, budgeting, shopping, preparing a healthy meal, and then sitting down to enjoy it with their children is a challenge, she added.

She recommends that programs should be developed and implemented to include information on the importance of shared mealtimes, time management, stress management, parenting skills, cooking lessons, and shopping strategies. If parents are taught to value family mealtimes and learn to make them a priority, they may protect their children from dangerous obesity and the harmful effects of living in a resource-starved environment.

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