Eating Disorder Prevention (Part 3): How to Maximize the Power of Family Meals

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on April 1, 2010

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What parent doesn’t want their kid to eat a more nutritious diet, have a healthy body weight, excel in school, stay clear of behavior problems and be less likely to develop eating disorders?  Studies show that frequent family meals are associated with all these desirable outcomes. 

Researchers are still trying to figure out what it is about family meals.  Is it the food, good nutrition, family togetherness or the structure?  While it is probably a combination of these things, one thing is for sure: the family meal is a powerful tool in raising healthy eaters.

Welcome to part 3 of our Eating Disorder Prevention series.  Last time we talked about raising children who have a healthy body image.  Now we’re going to focus on helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food.

In addition to having regular meals together as a family, there are specific things parents can do to make this ritual more positive and enjoyable. Let’s take a look…

1. Check Your Feeding Style:  Parental feeding practices are defined the same way general parenting styles are.  An authoritarian feeding style attempts to control or restrict children’s eating without regard for their preferences.  Authoritative feeding practices set respectful limits and encourage healthy eating but also consider children’s food preferences.  And permissive feeding sets few limits and allows children to decide the what, when and where of eating.

“How parents feed their children is a big factor in how kids learn to relate to food,” says Jill Castle MS, RD, pediatric nutrition specialist and owner of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills in Nashville, TN.  ”Controlling and permissive feeding styles can contribute to weight problems and disordered eating.”

A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that an authoritative feeding style was associated with more nutritious diets in kids than an authoritarian feeding style. 

So it’s that middle ground you’re looking for: providing leadership at mealtime without being too controlling.  The authoritative approach is not only the most effective, it also helps everyone at the table relax and enjoy.

“I wish my parents taught me more about moderation. Aside from soda (our special Friday night treat), we had access to everything in the house. I think maybe it’s because my parents never really learned the art of moderation either, but I was a kid who could polish off a sleeve of cookies with no problem. I was never a big kid, but these habits are hard to break now that I’m older!” Amy, 24-year old who struggled with disordered eating and writes about her experiences at Second City Randomness.

2. Make Family Meals Pleasant:   
Elisabeth Armstrong, who was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 29 and chronicles her recovery on Joggers Life, remembers family meals as “dinnertime chaos.”  There was often fighting, restrictions put on her eating, a dieting mother and lots of processed and packaged foods.

“There were a lot inconsistencies and mixed messages,” she says.  “I really believe family dinners should be pleasant for kids, not negative.”

When kids have a positive association with meals, they are more likely to eat and be pleasant at the table.  But if they are stressful, kids are more likely to act out and view mealtime as a negative experience.

One way to make mealtimes more pleasant is to focus on connection, not “what” or “how much” kids are eating.  Even if you a young child isn’t interested in eating, they can stay at the table and enjoy the conversation.

“Parents have thousands of opportunities to connect with their children during mealtime,” says Castle. “That connection can be positive or negative.”

3. Create Meal Traditions:   “What kids really crave is structure,” says Abby Ellin author of Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat-Camper Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, And How Parents Can (And Can’t) Help.

Rituals take the structure of family meals up a notch and make it more fun.

So if you haven’t already, start some mealtime traditions.  Maybe Fridays can be make-your-own pizza nights while Sundays are reserved for pancakes.  These rituals will create positive memories with food and meals.

But it’s important to continue meals and traditions as kids get older when eating disorders are more likely to strike. 

“I grew up with my mom and I sharing dinner together every night. She always knew what I ate for breakfast and lunch too. Around the time I started having eating disorder symptoms, she never was around to see me at meal times and never inquired about it either. I think it’s important for parents to keep an interest in how their children are eating. Tori, 19 year old college student recently diagnosed with an eating disorder.  She blogs about her recovery at Daring to Dance.

4. Provide Balanced Meals:
In this day and age there is a lot pressure to serve healthy meals.  But I think it’s better to view meals in terms of balance. That’s because extremes in either direction are no good.  The key is to provide a variety of foods that provide nutrition and good taste.  

In order to achieve balance, serve nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins) in greater quantities, in-between foods (higher fat dairy products, fattier meats, white bread) in more moderate quantities and fun foods (sweets and fried foods) less often.  I’ll be talking more about how to strike this balance in future posts, but every family needs to find the balance that works best for them.   

“You don´t have to make your kids eat perfectly healthy. Childhood is about not having too much obligation – and, if they´re growing and eating a regular diet they’ll be fine” Gabriela, 15 year old from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil diagnosed with anorexia at age 11. She blogs about her recovery at Fro-Yo Lover. 

5. Set the tone at the table:
Eating at the table is like being naked — everything shows.  If you are trying to diet, feel out of control with eating or are stressed about the preparation of meals it’ll be out there.

Children, of course, pick up on everything.  When I first started cooking I wasn’t really enjoying the meals because I was so stressed getting everything on the table.  I soon learned that picking easier meals was a better strategy because I was happier.  I could always make more complex dishes later.

Most parents know that they are role models for their children and might avoid eating high-calorie treats in front of them.  But authors of a recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, point out that it’s also important for parents to model how to moderately eat the not-so-healthy foods.  

If you struggle with eating sweets then visit our moms and parent section for help.  We’ll also be talking more about this subject in our next Parent Tip.

“I essentially learned to binge from my mom. I saw her soothe her emotions by overeating, and then it became my biggest coping mechanism.  Basically I took what I saw her doing and amplified it.” Katie, twenty-something graduate student diagnosed with binge eating disorder at age 20.  She blogs about leading a more balanced lifestyle at Health for the Whole Self.

The bottom line: pleasant and frequent family meals help children develop a healthy relationship with food. And when they grow up, they’ll be more likely to make feeding themselves a priority.

What were your eating experiences growing up?  Has it influenced how you feed your family?

References
Hubbs-Tait L, Seacord Kennedy T, Page MC, Topham GL, Harrist AW. Parental feeding practices predict authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting styles. J of the Am Diet Assoc. 2008;108(7):1154-1161.

Patrick H, Nicklas TA, Hughes SO. The differential effects of authoritative and authoritarian feeding styles on eating behaviors. J of the Am Diet Assoc. 2004; 104Supplement(2):61.

Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Story M, Fulkerson JA. Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? J Asolesc Health. 2004;35(5):350-9.

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: Orchestrating and Enjoying the Family Meal by Ellyn Satter, LCSW, RD.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

TwinToddlersDad April 3, 2010 at 6:07 am

What an excellent article!

Your point about the parenting style is right on. It is also important to consider the parenting style of both parents. When it comes to “connecting” with kids, whether on the dinner table or otherwise, both parents need to be on the same page. When their parenting styles are far apart, they need to have a game plan so their differences do not create a conflict and confusion for children.

Here is an article I wrote which goes in detail of parenting styles, pros and cons of each, and how to address differences.

http://bit.ly/awSbTy

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 3, 2010 at 9:39 am

Thanks for comment and link to your article. Really helpful information! It’s very important for parents to get on the same page.

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Meal Plan Mom (Brenda) April 8, 2010 at 8:33 am

Wow! This is terrific info.! I am a huge proponent of eating meals together and thankfully our lifestyle (and the choices we make in our schedules!) allows us to do that. I have breakfast with my kids every day (no plopping them at the table while I do other things) and lunch every day that they are home from school/preschool. Dinners are ALWAYS together unless my husband has to work late which is rare (thankfully) or someone has a sleepover at friend’s house (again, not the norm). We just move up or down our dinner time so that we can accomodate after school activities, playdates, etc.. It is really not that hard especially if you plan your meals. :-)

I was planning to do a post about the importance of eating meals together on my own blog and you have found the words beautifully. I’ll let you know when I get something there if you like.

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