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Meals Together Improve Family Nutrition

PUYALLUP, Wash. — Scientific research continues to verify what many might consider common sense: Families that regularly eat together eat more nutritiously and the children are less prone to high-risk behaviors.

With that in mind Gov. Gary Locke has proclaimed October as “Eat Better; Eat Together” month. He urges families in Washington state to use the month to establish a routine of regular family meals together.

The effort to promote more family meals is being spearheaded in Washington state by the Nutrition Education Network, an alliance of public and private organizations coordinated through Washington State University Cooperative Extension.

“The challenge to having regular family meals is the increasing demand on our time,” said Sue Butkus, a nutrition specialist at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center. “Between work schedules, soccer and band practices for the kids, video games and the Internet, family meals together tend to get squeezed out.”

NEN’s Martha Marino, a registered dietician with the Washington State Dairy Council, confirms that while they aren’t disappearing the frequency of family meals is declining.

“The average number of family meals is three to five dinners a week, but the number declines as kids get older,” Marino said. “Recent research shows that ten to 40 percent of families never or seldom eat together, and that segment is growing.”

A national survey has found that children who regularly eat with their families have fewer behavior problems in school and are significantly less likely to get involved in high-risk behaviors such as drugs, alcohol and early sexual behavior. The survey was conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and findings were published in early September.

The 2003 CASA survey of adults and teens found that teens who ate dinner five to seven times a week with their families were 21 percent less likely to try tobacco or alcohol, 17 percent less likely to try marijuana and eight percent more likely to get A’s in school, compared with those who seldom or never shared family meals.

The survey concludes that, “teens who have dinner with their families two nights a week or less are at double the risk of substance abuse as teens who have frequent family dinners.”

Another study published in the May 2003 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health verified that adolescents who ate with their families four or five times weekly were significantly more likely to eat more vegetables, fruits and dairy products.

Research published this year in the Journal of Nutrition Educations and Behavior confirmed that regular family meals improve the nutrition intake of parents as well.

“Besides the nutritional and behavior benefits tied to eating together regularly, family meals have been shown to improve family communication and are a way to establish or continue traditions and values,” Marino said.

“Then there’s the bottom line benefit that it’s cheaper to provide a family meal rather than a number of ‘solo’ meals.”

Marino offers the following tips for making family meals together a regular routine:

  • Start from where you are. Take advantage of the mealtimes your family already enjoy together, and create opportunities to gradually add more meals together.
  • Make family meals a priority. Limit distractions by turning off computers and video games and by not eating in front of the TV.
  • It doesn’t have to be dinner. Today’s hectic schedules can make planning family meals together difficult. Pick meals that are easiest to get the family together, which may be breakfast rather than dinner.
  • Involve children in the shopping, cooking and clean up, which gives them a stake in family mealtimes.

More information about the value of family meals together is available at the Nutrition Education Network Web site:

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Media Contacts

Sue Butkus, WSU Puyallup Research & Extension Center, 253-445-4553
Martha Marino, Washington State Dairy Council, 425-744-1616