While I am enthusiastic about the potential for a healthy diet to promote vibrant health and well-being, I am also of the opinion that there are other reasons for consuming food that go way beyond its nutritional merits. Eating can be intensely pleasurable, which is something even I am keen to bear in mind when dispensing dietary advice. Food can act as a social glue, too: a shared meal is an ideal opportunity to chew the cud with others, which I reckon can be no bad thing in a society where early-morning solo breakfasts, brown-bagging it and TV dinners are so often the orders of the day.
Mealtimes offer the opportunity for households to punctuate their oh-so-busy days with a spot of 'quality time'. Making meals a family affair can help harmonise relations, but I can't resist pointing out that it is likely to have nutritional benefits, too. Left to their own devices, youngsters with limited budgets almost inevitably gravitate to fast food, rarely brimming with nutrients.
The findings of two very recent studies have supported the notion that eating meals out of house and home can have significant nutritional consequences for children and adolescents. In one, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the frequency of family meals and quality of the diet were assessed in almost 5,000 children. Frequent family meals were found to be associated with an increased intake of healthy foods and a more modest consumption of soft drinks (which have strong links with obesity in children). Youngsters eating more meals with the family had higher intakes of protein and calcium (important dietary elements for growing boys and girls), as well as of other key nutrients including iron, folate and vitamins A, C and E.
Another study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health also found that eating evening meals at home was associated with an increased consumption of fruit and veg, and healthier eating habits overall. Interestingly, this study also discovered that parental participation at the evening meal seemed to increase the likelihood of children eating breakfast the next morning. Why this should be is not known for sure, but it is significant because there is evidence that having breakfast may boost mental powers, and has been linked with improved scholastic performance.
Yet another benefit of the family meal is that it appears to have the capacity to instil food awareness in children. At least two studies have found that the more frequent family dinners are, the more likely youngsters are to discuss and learn about nutritional matters. Another study found that adolescents reported feeling more confident about making healthy food choices at family meals rather than at other eating opportunities. It seems that when it comes to giving children all the benefits food has to offer, there really is no place like home.