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Research Snapshot: Promoting family meals holds promise for curbing childhood obesity

Photo: CC, Meal Makeover Moms,

Every parent knows the struggle of eating all together. Preparing, coordinating and scheduling a family meal around the table can seem like a Herculean effort. Busy schedules, evening activities, errands and the lure of technology are all barriers to a family sit-down dinner that research shows strengthens families.

While creating a family-centric meal might be difficult, parents now have another reason to make it happen while their children are young.

New research suggests that having family meals with your children before they hit puberty holds promise for curbing obesity.

A study by Jayne Fulkerson, Ph.D., professor in the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, found that programs that promote preparing and eating healthy meals together may prevent excess weight gain in younger children. The research was published this month in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

“The results suggest if younger children eat frequent and healthful meals with their families, they may be less likely to gain excess weight as they grow,” Fulkerson said.

The HOME Plus study is the first randomized controlled trial to test a family meals-focused program to prevent excess weight gain. The study involved 160 children, ages 8 to 12, and their parents or guardians. Parent surveys and child BMI checks were performed at the beginning and end of the program, as well as nine months after the conclusion of the program. Families assigned to the HOME Plus program participated in 10 monthly family group sessions and five goal-setting phone calls. Families assigned to the control group received only a nutrition newsletter highlighting healthy family habits.

The HOME Plus study found children participating in the HOME Plus program who had not started puberty gained less excess weight compared to children who did not participate in the family meals-focused program.

The significant effect among prepubescent children suggests the intervention may be more effective with younger children. Program participants who had started puberty did not see significant differences in excess weight gain compared to the control group.

“Additional research to confirm the effectiveness of the program specifically for prepubescent children is needed,” Fulkerson said.

Fulkerson hopes these results will encourage parents to make family meals a priority and teach their children how to create healthy meals in the process.

“Preparing and eating more meals together builds a sense of family unity and builds healthy habits,” Fulkerson said. “Teaching children how to prepare healthy meals and snacks gives them a life skill that can promote a lifetime habit of healthy eating.”