Monday, May 16, 2011

What's More Important in a Family Meal: The Food or the Family?

Recently I was posed the question, “What’s more important in a family meal: the food or bringing your family together?”

I would argue that both are important, but if I were pressed to choose one, I would say that bringing family members together is the more significant component. I readily admit that background as a psychologist biases me toward that choice. The numerous studies that consistently find a positive relationship between the frequency of family meals and child and adolescent outcome variables (e.g., lower risk for substance use, lower risk of disordered eating, lower risk of mental health problems) focus on the act of the family eating together, not on what food is served at those meals.

The act of bringing your family together is not easy. It encompasses organization, family cohesion, communication, cooperation, and commitment. So it is likely that not only the act of eating together, but also all these other variables that go into making a family meal happen, that benefit our children. Further, when children eat with their families frequently, they have been found to be more likely to eat more nutritious food.

I have sometimes seen parents get overly focused on the food aspect of family meals. I’m not saying that it’s not important, and I personally put a great deal of thought into planning meals with a variety of vegetables, grains, and lean proteins. I don’t, however, plan my meals based on the nutritional analyses of particular recipes or completely avoid serving “bad” foods. When the focus is on getting “good” food “into” a child, and not on helping him learn how to develop a healthy long-term relationship with, success is likely to be very limited. As Brian Wansink and his colleagues said,  “No food is nutritious, after all, until it is actually eaten.” Moreover, you may be unintentionally be raising an “orthorexic”  or be increasing your child’s anxiety around food.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this subject. Please feel free to post your comments.

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