Want to improve your family's eating habits without nagging, cajoling, threatening or bargaining with them? Then take this simple (if not necessarily easy) step: Eat meals together as often as possible.
It turns out that a number of studies show that the family that eats together eats better.
Regular family meals are linked with increased consumption of fruit and vegetables, two food groups where most Americans fall short. And while teens may roll their eyes -- or drag their feet, or throw an Oscar-worthy fit -- before coming to the table, those who regularly eat with their families are more likely than their counterparts to eat more dairy foods and whole grains and to guzzle fewer soft drinks. And at least one study has found that family meals exert a protective effect on disordered eating, including a reduction of chronic dieting and binge eating.
But the benefits of family meals seem to go far beyond nutrition. Last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota reported that teens who ate seven or more meals with their families each week generally had higher grade-point averages, and were less likely to feel depressed, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or use marijuana than those who ate less than twice a week with their families.
"Eating family meals may enhance the health and well-being of adolescents," the team reported in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
Yet in many households, the family dinner is an endangered tradition. In a 2003 study of nearly 300 families conducted at the University of Minnesota, about a third of participants felt that their family was too busy to eat dinner as a group.
Here's how experts say you can help entice your family to the table more often, despite long work days, hectic commutes and busy after-school commitments:
Set a minimum number of required family meals weekly. "Parents have the misconception that kids don't want to eat with them," said registered dietitian Ann Litt, whose Bethesda practice includes many teens. "They do want to eat with you, even though they may give you a hard time about it. They really miss it when you don't eat together." So make attendance mandatory. Start with one or two meals a week, then slowly build up to about seven.
Stock staples. It's hard to have a meal if you don't have any ingredients. Keep a supply of eggs (or egg substitutes), milk, cheese, rice, soup and pasta and tomato sauce. And make sure your freezer contains such basics as tortellini or ravioli; veggie burgers, hamburgers or hot dogs; fish sticks, chicken breasts, fruit, vegetables, pancakes, bacon, waffles and pizza dough. This planning pays off: University of Minnesota researchers report that families who plan meals regularly eat more fruit and vegetables than those who just wing it.