Did you know that your child’s eating habits are largely determined by you? An adequate and balanced diet is not only linked to the child’s growth and development. It is also directly related to disease prevention and health promotion factors in adulthood.
In this context, behavioral nutrition plays a fundamental role in guiding food choices in the first year of life. A correct introduction of solid foods, associated with the availability and accessibility of healthy foods, in a pleasant eating environment, enables the child to start building their food preferences consistently.
At this moment, the environment that surrounds the child is the family and the role of the parents is fundamental, as they are largely the child’s only reference of learning. Parents can promote nutritious food choices to their children by selecting healthy foods, thinking about nutritional quality and not just taste. It is up to parents to introduce food to their children, make it accessible and teach about the benefits of health-conscious food choices, while respecting the child’s innate hunger and satiety control.1)Ramos M. Desenvolvimento do comportamento alimentar infantil. Jornal de Pediatria 0021-7557/00/76-Supl.3/S229
Family meals represent an important event, where a positive atmosphere is created. A study by Wardle,2)Wardle J. Eating behaviour and obesity. Obes Rev. 2007 Mar;8 Suppl 1:73-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2007.00322.x addressing the relationship between food characteristics and eating behavior, found that food preferences change as a result of personal experiences and learning involved in mealtimes. A positive environment during a meal can induce the child’s preference for foods, while a negative experience can result in a dislike of certain food choices.
Making correct food choices seems simple, however it is a complex, dynamic and multifaceted process, directed by psychosocial, cultural and economic influences.
Parents who discuss nutritional issues as a family, or, more specifically, the nutritional value of foods, provide their children with greater knowledge about nutrition, enabling children to make better food choices throughout their lives. We should mention that children learn about the importance of foods from their own experiences and also, for example, by observing their parents.
Children who dine regularly in the family circle, tend to consume more nutrients from fruits and vegetables, have lower rates of obesity, and eat fewer calories than those who were eating out. Also noted were academic and emotional benefits, lower rates of drug use and depression, more resilience, broader vocabulary, greater reading ability, and overall better grades in school.4)The Benefits of Home Cooking for Your Family. Huffpost, 27.05.2017
Sitting together as a family for a meal allows us to develop valuable skills such as: listening to other people, sharing ideas, laughing, telling stories, choosing healthy foods and even passing on traditions from one generation to another.5)Rossi A, Moreira EAM, Rauen MS. Determinantes do comportamento alimentar: uma revisão com enfoque na família. Rev Nutr. 2008 Dec;21(6):739-48. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1415-52732008000600012
Studies conducted by Branen & Fletcher6)Branen L, Fletcher J. Comparison of college students’ current eating habits and recollections of their childhood food practices. J Nutr Educ. 1999; 31(6):304-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-3182(99)70483-8, found that young adults, when selecting a food item, recall the nutritional choices that were formed by their parents. This is an intriguing realization of how parents can influence their children’s eating habits in the long run.
Here are some tips to make family meal times more enjoyable:
1. Set up a healthy table. If you prefer, get everybody involved in the preparation of the table. Dividing tasks and involving children in preparation makes mealtimes easier, remember that children learn by watching, but also by doing.7)Refeições em família: Como as crianças se beneficiam do contato com os pais à mesa. BBC News, Novembro 12, 2018
2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off the television, store away cell phones and tablets, so that attention is on each other. A study carried out with 91 children and 91 parents showed that children whose families eat their meals while watching television had a lower fruit and vegetable intake and a higher consumption of pizzas, snacks and soft drinks, compared to those who did not. Furthermore, research has shown that watching television during meals is associated with a higher risk for nutritional deficiencies. Another factor linked to the practice of eating in front of the television is associated with commercial food advertisements, which induce the child to eat totally unhealthy foods. About 91% of the most frequently advertised food products tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt.
Parents should also monitor the exposure time their children spend with electronic equipment, taking into account the sedentary lifestyle associated with obesity and the possible development of chronic diseases.8)Rossi A, Moreira EAM, Rauen MS. Determinantes do comportamento alimentar: uma revisão com enfoque na família. Rev Nutr. 2008 Dec;21(6):739-48. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1415-52732008000600012
3. Celebrate the Food. Sometimes we get so used to our abundance lifestyle that we forget that there are many people in this world who die of hunger and thirst. Praying before the meals it is also a way to express thankfulness and ask for a blessing over the food.
4. Have a good chat. Avoid issues that bring discomfort to the other. This is not the best time to resolve those issues. If the conversation is something light, it will encourage your children to express their views and learn to respect other people’s opinions.9)Refeições em família: Como as crianças se beneficiam do contato com os pais à mesa. BBC News, Novembro 12, 2018
The family environment should provide interactions and strengthen bonds between other family members, be safe, warm and provide adequate and healthy food. Parents have a fundamental role in their children acquiring preferences and eating habits, which can encourage healthy eating patterns for their children. Furthermore, eating together can protect the health of the whole family and add a lot of value to our lives. Get started now! Taking care of your child’s health will bring rewarding results for their lifetime!
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Elen Regina Duarte is finishing her last year of Nutrition at the University Nove de Julho in São Paulo, Brazil. Throughout these 4 years she has developed a passion for family nutrition. She is married and the mother of a beautiful girl.
|↑1||Ramos M. Desenvolvimento do comportamento alimentar infantil. Jornal de Pediatria 0021-7557/00/76-Supl.3/S229|
|↑2||Wardle J. Eating behaviour and obesity. Obes Rev. 2007 Mar;8 Suppl 1:73-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2007.00322.x|
|↑3||Lynn Barendsen. The Family Dinner Project|
|↑4||The Benefits of Home Cooking for Your Family. Huffpost, 27.05.2017|
|↑5, ↑8||Rossi A, Moreira EAM, Rauen MS. Determinantes do comportamento alimentar: uma revisão com enfoque na família. Rev Nutr. 2008 Dec;21(6):739-48. https://doi.org/10.1590/S1415-52732008000600012|
|↑6||Branen L, Fletcher J. Comparison of college students’ current eating habits and recollections of their childhood food practices. J Nutr Educ. 1999; 31(6):304-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-3182(99)70483-8|
|↑7, ↑9||Refeições em família: Como as crianças se beneficiam do contato com os pais à mesa. BBC News, Novembro 12, 2018|