Serving up a little family stability


The recession has brought many families back to the enjoyment and benefits of good old-fashioned mealtimes

CAN HAVING meals with your child help prevent them from developing an eating disorder?

According to new research, the answer is yes. We all know the adage about the family who eats together, stays together. But over the past 20 years, an increasing number of studies are suggesting that it does more than just promote family stability.

The ritual of a family dinner is being promoted as a buffer against children doing poorly at school, obesity, smoking, drinking, depression – and now eating disorders.

Prof Fiona McNicholas, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, believes the benefits of eating together as a family are significant.

“As well as building positive communication with the family, helping to keep self-esteem up in kids and allowing parents to see early warning signs, children also model good eating habits and, if concerned about weight, it can be done as part of healthy lifestyle choices, not all of which are stopping food.”

But a recent Irish study, The Voice of Young People: A Report on Children’s Attitudes to Diet, Lifestyle and Obesity,found that over a third of Irish teenagers ate their dinner in front of the television. More worrying, the Irish National Teens Survey in 2007 found 37 per cent of teenagers had attempted to lose weight.

Families who share more than five meals a week have children who are 25 per cent less likely to experience nutritional health issues than families who share only one meal a week.

Not only does research show that family meals tend to be better nutritionally balanced, communal dinner time seems to act as a protective factor for overweight, unhealthy or disordered eating.

Paula Mee, a Dublin-based dietitian agrees. “Children who eat without parents eat less nutritious foods. They consume less fibre, vitamins and minerals when they eat alone, but also the communication is really important too.

“Interesting children in food – where it comes from, and how it’s produced and why it’s important for energy levels, how it helps us concentrate and how it impacts on our ability to play sport – is vital.”

In Ireland, the prevalence of eating disorders is increasing, while the age of onset is decreasing. And while it still affects only a relatively small number of children, the long-lasting medical and psychological effects can be profound.

The worldwide prevalence of anorexia (0.5-1 per cent) and bulimia (2 per cent) make these disorders the third commonest chronic illness of adolescence.

When compared with other major psychiatric disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rates, as a result of medical complications and even suicide.

Mee explains why eating together can foster healthier behaviour. “Children absorb by osmosis. Because the majority of eating disorders develop during the teenage years, early prevention and intervention is critical.

“We need to help more teenagers recognise the influence of marketing on their food choices, encourage and empower them to resist media and social pressures to be slim, discuss why it is vital to eat a variety of nutritious food and exercise. And, very importantly, as parents we can be strong role models ourselves.”

Many parents cite busy lifestyles and complicated family routines for inability to find time to eat together, but the ritual of sharing a meal also combines several key activities with our children, and can actually save us time.

Carol McNelis and her Italian husband, Flavio, have a four-year-old daughter, Isabella.

“We have always, as a couple, made a ceremony of sitting down to eat every meal, and even more since we had Isabella. She helps prepare the food, from peeling the garlic to stirring the food, and smelling and tasting along the way. On most days she will also help set the table. No meal in our house is taken without first putting down a table cloth, napkins, fresh bread, etc before the dinner is served.”

While this idyll is probably beyond the ability of most busy families, the benefits cannot be ignored. McNelis explains: “I think sitting down together is important for many reasons: to observe us eating, so she learns these simple but important skills, also how to describe the food she is eating, or her likes [‘yummy’] to dislikes [‘what is that?’]. It’s a great way for her to learn where the food comes from as we explain, this is goat’s cheese, the ham is from the pig.”

The good news is that the recession may be encouraging us to eat more together. “A recent study has found that many of our boom-time behaviours have adjusted since the recession,” says Mee.

“Now it seems we are reclaiming some of our previously misplaced values, increasing our tendency to cook from scratch, placing more emphasis on spending time together at certain meal occasions and increasing our commitment to buy local food.”

Rather than spending to supply various sets of demands, a family meal tends to be cheaper. McNelis explains: “We try to ensure she eats the same as us. It’s a family meal and not a visit to a restaurant with an a la carte menu, especially when I’m cooking. Also, we can’t afford it. We work off a tight budget and have to plan our meals, so that means shopping well.”

One area the researchers are not clear on is if it is the ritual of dinner rather than the meal itself that provides the buffer.

The family who is organised enough to sit down and eat together are functioning well in other areas such as communication.

McNelis believes this is the time of the day for her daughter to express herself and be heard.

“It’s an opportunity to quiz her on things. There have been times when we’ve been talking and she says about how something has upset her at school, and we’ve the opportunity to talk it through and deal with it without it being a huge drama.

“For Isabella, mealtimes are fun times with mum and dad. Now, if we can just get her to do the dishes, we’d be sorted!”