Family Mealtimes Linked to Healthy Children

“Family mealtimes have the potential to promote healthy child development,” state the authors of this study on childhood asthma. In this study, 215 asthmatic children were selected and a family mealtime of each child was recorded. The severity of asthma was surprisingly dependent on the type of conversations and productivity during the mealtime. Better engagement and interest during mealtime conversations resulted in less severe asthma symptoms. Healthy communication had a positive impact on the child’s quality of life. Practitioners and policy makers should therefore work on promoting healthy family mealtimes as a public health priority.

According to the study, approximately 70 percent of children and adolescents share a meal with at least one adult three or more times a week. There seems to be a relationship between family mealtimes and good child health. The more the number of family meals, the better the consumption of fruits and vegetables and lesser is the incidence of substance abuse. On the contrary, fewer family mealtimes have been associated with eating disorders. “However, yet to be determined is how the more precise quality of family interactions observed at mealtimes relates to child health,” per the researchers. The focus of this study was to assess how communication, actions and behavioral control during family mealtimes are related to indicators of children’s health.

* The study included 215 asthmatic children aged between 5 and 12 years. Two hundred mealtimes were coded for the purpose of analysis. They were all questioned and their caregivers were asked to fill in a questionnaire.
* The asthma in the children was clinically monitored. Video recording facilities were set in each of their homes and one family mealtime was recorded.
* Two people were asked to review each of these recorded mealtime videos and assess the quality of mealtime as per a pre-decided scale.

* Each meal lasted an average of 18.7 minutes and most of this time was spent in some form of positive communication.
* The age of the child was not related to total duration of interaction, but mealtime communication decreased as age increased.
* Those with severe asthma had disturbed mealtimes and less discussion of family events (positive communication).
* Child ethnicity and maternal education significantly predicted child health.

There was only a single recording of mealtime for each child’s family. Information on the socioeconomic context of all the families was insufficient. Family mealtimes relied on neighborhood poverty, work pressures and access to healthy foods. Therefore, the authors claim that this study had only considered one attribute of a multifaceted context.  “Future efforts are warranted to determine whether multiple observations reveal the same pattern of results.”

Despite the fact that family mealtimes are casual events, only 18 minutes were spent, on an average, on each occasion. After seven minutes, most families disengaged from active participation in family discussions to watch television, talk on the phone or do other activities. On analysis, the children in families that did not pay much importance to positive communication during mealtimes had more severe asthma. It is thus obvious that, “families need guidance and support in creating communication strategies for their mealtimes.”  The same also calls for  governments to work toward incorporating family mealtimes into the public health agenda.

For More Information:
The ABCs of Family Mealtimes: Observational Lessons for Promoting Healthy Outcomes for Children With Persistent Asthma
Publicaiton Journal: Child Development, January/February 2011
By Barbara H Fiese, Marcia A Winter; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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