Study: family meals aren’t only way to ensure kids eat fruits & veggies

You have to work late, one of your children has soccer practice and the other child has a music lesson. In other words, there’s no way the entire family will be able to sit down for a meal at the same time tonight. This is a common occurrence in families across the country, but are family meals the only way to ensure that kids eat their fruits and vegetables? A new study from the University of Minnesota says not necessarily.

“Studies suggest that having meals as a family increases the intake of fruit and vegetables for adolescents, but we know that’s not a regular option for all families. For our study, we wanted to find out if there are other more realistic ways for busy parents to ensure their kids eat a healthy diet,” Allison Watts, Ph.D. and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health said.

To do that, Watts and her colleagues looked at data from Project EAT 2010, a diverse population based study of roughly 2,800 adolescents in the Minneapolis, St. Paul area in 2009-2010. They analyzed the data to determine if the following parenting practices contributed to higher fruit and vegetable intake among adolescents while also considering if regular family meals were taking place:

  • Home availability: Frequency of fruit and vegetables being available at home
  • Home accessibility: Frequency of fruit being left on the counter, table or somewhere kids could easily get it; having cut-up vegetables in the fridge.
  • Parent modeling: Parents eating fruits and vegetables with their meals.
  • Parent encouragement: Parents encouraging their children to eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

The results were positive.

Healthful parenting practices such as: fruit and vegetable availability and accessibility, parent fruit and vegetable modeling, and encouragement of healthy eating were associated with higher fruit and vegetable intake in adolescents and this continued to be true when these adolescents were not having regular family meals.

“This supports the idea that parents can incorporate these practices into their lifestyle to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables their kids are eating, even if they can’t sit down at the table as a family every night. This provides an alternative option for the busy, modern family lifestyles that exist today,” Watts said.

The study also found that fruit and vegetable intake was the highest in adolescents who were exposed to both healthful parenting practices and regular family meals. However, this was only the case if parents utilized the healthful practices. When families sat down for dinner together, but did not utilize the healthful practices, there was no difference in fruit and vegetable intake.

“So certainly, if families can sit down for dinner together, and incorporate those healthy eating practices, they should. That will give parents the best chance at ensuring their kids will consume more fruit and vegetables,” Watts said. “We just want parents to know that if they just can’t find time to sit down with the family for meals, there are still other ways to ensure their kids get enough fruits and vegetables.”
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities