In a recent study published in the JAMA Network Open Journal, researchers performed a randomized clinical trial (RCT) among 50 parent-child dyads in Germany between November 8, 2016, and May 5, 2017.
The aim of the study was to evaluate the effect of extending the family mealtime duration on fruit and vegetable intake in children.
Study: Effect of Longer Family Meals on Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Intake. Image Credit: EvgenyAtamanenko/Shutterstock.com
Eating fewer fruits and vegetables increases children’s risk of non-infectious chronic diseases. However, the intake of fruits and vegetables in children remains lower than the recommended amount globally.
Nearly two-thirds of every child’s calorie intake comes from home-prepared food, i.e., eaten in the family setting.
Thus, family meals are important for children’s nutrition and shape their food preferences in the future. More importantly, they present an ideal setting to introduce dietary measures to improve their health.
About the study
In the present study, researchers used a within-dyad manipulation design to perform an RCT in a family meal laboratory in Berlin, Germany, to examine whether longer family meals increased the fruit and vegetable intake of children aged six to 11 years.
These children did not have food allergies, and they did not follow a special diet. They fed on food planned and prepared by one of their parents, serving as a nutritional caretaker in the household.
The team ensured that all parent-child dyads underwent two mealtime conditions but randomized them to one of the conditions using a block randomization method (AB/BA design).
First, the researchers asked all parents to complete an online assessment with their children at home, which helped them serve food and beverages according to the child’s preferences.
Then, the dyads visited the laboratory for two free evening meals, which took place under regular and longer mealtime durations. So each parent and child followed a regular family mealtime duration (control) and an increased mealtime duration (intervention).
The team offered the same food and beverage categories and serving sizes to all the participants. They coded the food consumption of the parent-child dyads from the video recordings using a standardized coding system.
They computed mean bites per minute in both conditions to compare their eating rate in regular vs. longer conditions during the same time frame.
Finally, the team explored food consumption dynamics over time for normal and longer conditions using a linear and a logarithmic mixed model, as feasible.
The trial findings indicated that children consumed more vegetables and fruits during lengthier family meals, at least 10 minutes longer on average.
It is relevant for public health because approximately one extra portion of fruits and vegetables daily, corresponding to 100gm, could decrease cardiometabolic disease risk by 6% to 7%.
Strikingly, children did not eat other foods (bread or cheese) more, showing that lengthier family meals also improved diet quality in children.
It is possible that besides exposure to food for more time, cutting fruits and vegetables into bite-sized pieces made them convenient to eat for children. On the other hand, other foods remained inconvenient to consume.
For fruits, the authors noted a significant cross-level interaction between the percentage of mealtime and condition (longer vs. regular).
So, while children had eaten vegetable pieces by the time their regular meal time was over in the longer condition (100% of 150% meal time duration), they ate more fruit in the longer condition during the extra time. Clearly, longer mealtimes helped them consume additional amounts of fruits.
Furthermore, longer family mealtime decreased eating rates and increased satiety, lowering the risk of obesity because children ate fewer desserts.
However, the researchers found no association between the longer mealtime condition and a positive atmosphere.
The present trial findings confirmed a slight increase of about 10 minutes in family mealtime, a low-threshold intervention, substantially improved children’s eating behavior and overall diet quality. Accordingly, the researchers suggested focusing on mealtimes when it is most feasible to increase time accommodating children’s preferences.
During breakfast, everyone is rushing, so it is better to increase mealtime for evening snacks or dinner. Setting up transparent rules that mandate staying on the table for a certain duration could prove beneficial.
It is also simple and inexpensive to make fruits and vegetables available on the table. Nevertheless, cultivating this simple habit in children from a young age could help address a big public health problem.
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