Studies have established that watching television for hours daily is associated with an increased risk of obesity. We also know that having family meals can provide a host of mental and physical health benefits for the family. Another given is that when food is prepared and cooked at home, you are in control of ingredients and portions, so you will likely consume healthier meals and meet portion control standards.
So wouldn’t it make sense that if you make home-cooked family meals a regular habit, rather than an occasional event, and turn off the TV during the meal, it might yield some stellar health benefits? Based on a study’s findings, that formula for adults, and likely children too, is spot on!
The ENERGY cross-sectional study suggested that children between the ages of 10 and 12, who never watched TV during meals, had lower risks of being overweight, compared to those who did watch TV while eating.
A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health review highlighted the first research study out of that institution that linked watching TV to obesity over 25 years ago. It should also be intuitive that if your kids are allowed to watch TV during the meal, they may linger longer and eat more food while waiting for a program to finish. The many food ads during typical family programming may also nudge kids to eat more or to want the foods they see in the ads, like fast food and junk food. A 2006 study found that self-regulation of calories in kids is helped when parents and caretakers restrict TV viewing time during meals.
According to The Family Dinner Project, family dinners offer a range of benefits including:
- Better academic performance
- Higher self-esteem
- Greater sense of resilience
- Lower risk of substance abuse
- Lower risk of teen pregnancy
- Lower risk of depression
- Lower rates of obesity
In this study published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in March 2017, adults who reported never watching TV during family meals had lower odds of developing obesity, compared to adults who always watched TV during home meals. The frequency of home meals did not appear to be as important as what you did during mealtime at home, namely, not watching TV. Having home cooked meals, separately as a health habit, was also associated with lower rates of obesity. Combining the two health habits had the most impact on lowering risk of obesity.
The data for this study was compiled from the 2012 Ohio Medicaid Assessment Survey, a telephone survey that involved 12,842 Ohio participants. Obesity was defined as body max index (BMI) over 30. More than 50 percent of families surveyed had family home-cooked meals most days, 35 percent had these meals on “some days,” and 13 percent only had meals like this a few days a week. The study controlled for employment status, race, marital status, education, and age. Family meal frequency was not as important a factor as the variable of the home meal, when it happened, being home-cooked, and not including TV viewing.
In my book The Four Habits of Healthy Families, I recommend involving the family, as if it’s a team, in menu planning, food shopping and food preparation, and using age appropriate skill set recommendations to guide the process. Even young children can help to select new recipes, create lists, and certainly have a vote on what they do and don’t like to eat. They can help to measure ingredients, tear the lettuce for salads, and set the table. Experts suggest that if you involve the children in the family meal decisions, they then have a stake in the choices and will be more receptive to new, healthy options. You can also make blind taste-tests a new activity at the end of the meal. This can encourage kids to be more adventurous and help them to expand their food repertoire.
Consider creating a “bucket of questions” written on little pieces of paper that can be selected by family members and used to stimulate conversations beyond, “How was your day.” You can draw from the news of the week, recent movies you’ve seen, common kid or teen issues, or use the time to plan menus for the week, or weekend activity plans.
This study should inspire you, as parents, to re-connect with home-cooking at least some of the time, and help to empower you to “turn off devices,” including the TV, during mealtimes.