PUYALLUP, Wash.—This Mother’s Day might be a great time to start eating together more often as a family. New educational materials developed by Washington State University Extension, in partnership with the Washington State Dairy Council, provide tips for making enjoyable, healthy meals. They also describe how family meals promote togetherness, help kids do better in school, improve nutrition, prevent weight problems, and save time and money.
“Our experience in teaching kids food-related skills in the classroom is that it very often results in these students helping their moms or care providers with the ‘work’ around producing family meals,” said Kathleen Manenica, WSU Extension Food $ense state coordinator. “We receive ongoing reports from parents that their kids enrolled in our Food $ense classes help plan menus, shop, learn about and prepare recipes, and more. It becomes fun for the whole family because the kids apply their new skills at home and become invested in healthy food and its presentation.”
Over the past year, a team of nutritionists and parent educators developed the new education campaign, called “Eat Together, Eat Better,” and pilot-tested activity modules for low-income adults, families and youth, all around three themes: Cook Together, Talk Together and Celebrate Together. Campaign funding was provided by USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP Ed) and WSU Extension, with WSDC funding production of the original artwork.
The WSU-produced materials offer lessons, worksheets, recipe cards, educational bookmarks and “borrow boxes,” which include more than 20 classroom activities for grades K-6 with support materials needed to teach each lesson. WSDC produced additional educational materials that include a poster, a handout with a Spanish translation, a theme magnet and a set of coasters with conversation starters on the back.
The materials have been “flying off the shelves,” according to WSDC Director of Nutrition Affairs Martha Marino, as nutrition and health educators around the country use them in their own ways to promote family meals.
Marino said “a cascade of evidence” supports the benefits of family meals, both in dietary intake and in psychosocial health. Research on youth and families shows that the nutritional benefits of eating together as a family include the following:
- Healthier food choices, including more consumption of vegetables, fruits and dairy
- Higher dietary intake of fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, folate, and vitamins B-6, B-12, C and E
- Lower dietary intake of fat, including saturated and transfat
- Increased frequency and better quality of breakfast
- Prevention of obesity
- Improved nutrient intake among parents and other adults
In addition, results from Washington’s Healthy Youth Survey show a correlation between frequency of family meals and frequency of other positive behaviors. Students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 who ate dinner with their families were more likely to have higher academic success in school and less likely to report depressive symptoms. They also used less tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.
In 1996, WSU Extension and a coalition of key state leaders from USDA, commodity commissions and child hunger advocacy groups created the first direct-mail campaign on family meals based on feedback from focus groups wanting to know how to eat together as families more often. The coalition found that families who received the mailings did increase their weekly frequency of eating together.
The new materials include comments from parents and children who discussed what they like about eating together:
“I like eating at home with my parents,” said one youth, “especially when my dad is there. It makes me feel like I matter to them. That’s when we talk because we’re looking at each other. It’s not the same eating in the car.”
“On Fridays my boys and I always have pizza,” one parent reported. “It’s our tradition to be glad that it’s the end of a week of school and work and helps us connect before the weekend starts.”
“My partner and I like to linger at the table over tea and dessert. The kids see by example that the table is an enjoyable place to be,” said another parent.
To order WSDC’s materials on family meals and their benefits, visit www.eatsmart.org.