Quinn on Nutrition: Benefits of family meals

October 10, 2016

What happens when a family decides to eat meals together? A lot, say nutrition experts. More and more research shows that kids who eat a meal (any meal) at least three times a week with their families do better in school, are more likely to resist unhealthy peer pressure and are less likely to be overweight or have eating disorders.

Home prepared meals also help us stretch hard-earned dollars and are usually more nutritious, say researchers. Not surprising, when we eat out, our tendency is to eat more fat, sodium and calories than when we eat at home.

Here’s my definition of a family meal: Household members sit down together in the same spot — television and phones turned off — to share the same food at the same time. Talking, as in having pleasant conversation, is encouraged. No screaming or harping about weight or other sensitive issues at the table, please. 

Other important points: Children are expected to show up … and maybe even help with prep and clean-up. Parents provide meals that are healthfully balanced but not depriving.

How does that work? We don’t have to force or bribe our kids to eat healthy foods, says registered dietitian nutritionist Claire St. John. We can rely instead on the Division of Responsibility, developed by internationally recognized child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter. Parents decide which foods are placed on the table and children get to choose what and how much they will eat. (I saw this in action when my two-year old grandson was not impressed with the meal his mommie made one evening. She calmly made it clear, "This is what we are having for dinner." He took one bite, drank his milk and miraculously survived.)

"Research shows this feeding strategy results in children being more likely to branch out and expand their food choices," says St. John, "even if they do it slowly. Forcing kids to eat certain foods makes it less likely that they’ll choose those foods as adults. And overly restricting foods (like sweets) in childhood will make those foods seem more desirable."

What does a healthy plate for a child look like? Harvard University TH Chan School of Public Health developed the "Kids Healthy Eating Plate" that can be downloaded at And check out Choose My Plate for Kids at, compliments of your tax dollars. 

Another good site for meal ideas is sponsored by the Dairy Council of California. In their "Healthy Eating Made Easier" section, you can plug in what you’re looking for to find healthful recipes for any criteria. For example, I selected "Protein" "Vegetable" "Dinner Entree" "Kids Love It" and "Quick to Prepare" and up popped 8 recipes!

Ready to try it? Set a family goal to eat at least 3 meals together this week and put it on your calendars. Or make it even one meal. It’s that important.




McClatchy-Tribune Information Services