Ask any Italian American about their favorite family tradition, and it’s a safe bet their answer will have something to do with food.
Just ask me.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, I have memory after treasured memory of holidays, weekends and just random moments spent around my grandmother’s table with my parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. I can recall countless times sitting at the table eating my grandma’s homemade ravioli and gnocchi while listening to the grownups share wild stories from their younger days.
Now I’m a grownup, and I’m helping to build a movement of people dedicated to reversing childhood obesity for the website PreventObesity.net. I am proud to work on this important issue. Childhood obesity is an epidemic that we must reverse. More than one in three American kids are now overweight or obese, and they’re at greater risk for serious and even life-threatening conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
While I work on campaign efforts to increase access to healthy food and promote physical activity, it’s often those memories of time at the table with my own family that keeps me motivated. In my gut, I know that people are more likely to have a healthier relationship with food if they spend time with it —preparing it, serving it, taking time to eat it (rather than just shoving it down from the drive thru).
As it turns out, my instincts are backed by scientific research. A growing body of evidence shows that children who regularly eat meals with their family are less likely to be obese.
In one major national study, 4-year-old children who ate dinner with their family six or seven days a week had a 25 percent lower risk of obesity compared to kids who ate dinner with their family less frequently. Other studies also have found that adolescents who regularly eat family meals are less likely to be obese.
It is important to remember obesity rarely can be attributed to one factor, says Ohio State University professor Sarah Anderson, who has done extensive research in this area. But there is a clear correlation between family dinner and obesity, she adds.
“The food children eat as part of family meals tends to be healthier than food eat outside… but family meals also provide an opportunity for parents to model and encourage the behaviors they desire for their children,” Anderson says. “Turning off the television during meals is one way that parents and children can increase the likelihood that they will be aware of what they are eating and whether they have eaten enough.”
Of course, most families would probably like to eat dinner together more often, but find that carving out the time to eat together can be tough. Economic and social situations play a role, as many parents hold jobs that won’t allow them to be home in time for dinner, for example.
That’s why we should work to support workplace policies that let parents get home in time to spend dinner with their kids, as Laurie David and Grace Freedman recently argued in the Huffington Post. We should also aim to back tax and social policies that support the purchase of healthy food.
If more families had the opportunity to eat dinner together, less children would suffer from obesity and the terrible conditions stemming from it.
Family dinner is truly good for both the body and the soul.
Elizabeth Brotherton is a senior writer and editor for PreventObesity.net. Are you working on an issue connected to the childhood obesity movement? Click here to apply to be a PreventObesity.net Leader.