Thanks to Michelle Obama and many public health advocates, much-needed attention has been directed to the epidemic of childhood obesity in America. Many possible interventions have been raised, including programs for healthier school lunches, more opportunities for play and recess, and less consumption of processed, poor quality foods.
There is one simple idea, though, that gets barely any attention. It's something that parents can act on right away, without any special training or government support and its available to them every day! That solution is family dinner. How and where we eat may seem too simple in the face of the enormous problem of childhood obesity. Yet, the ritual of eating meals together as a family, be it one parent at the table or both, has been shown to greatly improve healthy eating habits.
Dr. David Katz, the new Editor-in-Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity argued recently on this site that families (parents and kids together) are being forgotten in the far-flung efforts to stop the upward trend of obesity in U.S. children. We agree. Programs are geared mainly towards schools, and occasionally to adults, but rarely do we treat the basic social unit of the family with any consideration. What an oversight! Family dinner is a positive activity that is immediately understandable to parents, and immediately actionable. It is something that the vast majority of parents can do without much more than some basic ingredients and a kitchen table.
Regular, routine meals add structure to a child's day (and to a parent's) and from this structure stems a myriad of health and social benefits, including better relationships with peers and adults, better grades at schools, and less likelihood of using drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. We all know this. But children (and adults) who have regular mealtimes, with the television turned off and conversation turned on, are also far less likely to be overweight, are less likely to have eating disorders, and are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables than are those who eat alone or on the run.
To many people this seems illogical -- just because parents and children eat together doesn't mean they are eating healthy food, they argue. Couldn't families eat together and still just eat junk? Yes, of course, but empirical evidence, and common sense, shows that this is not the case. Many studies have shown that families who make dinner at home do indeed eat healthier. One theory is that once parents take the step to mindfully shop, prepare, and serve dinner, they also start making better health choices for themselves and their families. The act of sitting at the table and putting the focus on the mealtime may, all of a sudden, make the "fast-food" meal less palatable and a lot less interesting as an everyday option.
Family dinner is not always easy to accomplish night after night, but the benefits to families and to society are worth the effort. Parents could definitely benefit from improved nutritional information on packaging, from social and tax policies that support the purchase of healthy food, and from more flexible workplace policies to allow parents to get home by dinner hour. But we should be spending at least some of our research efforts figuring out how to best support parents to make healthy food choices and how to help them bolster the skills needed to accomplish family dinner.
The bottom line is dinner makes a difference. Family dinner is our best bet at an immediate impact in childhood obesity. We should not shy away from a proven solution, no matter how old-fashioned or simplistic it may appear. Family dinner and childhood obesity should be in the same sentence and families should be an intrinsic part of our anti-obesity efforts.