Updated: Aug 4
As most parents out there know, getting children to eat healthy can be a struggle. In this article, we break down a new study that investigated whether more time at the dinner table could improve childrens’ diets.
The home is a crucial setting for cultivating good dietary habits in children. This is because about two-thirds of what children eat is prepared in the home (1), and most of that is likely to happen during family meals. Considering this, it seems wise to use family meal time as the setting where you can try to improve your child’s diet.
Source: WFMC Health
That is precisely what a new study did. In this study, published last week in JAMA Network Open, 50 parent-child pairs from Germany were invited to have a family meal in a research centre on two occasions (2). 25 pairs ate the meal at their normal pace, and the other 25 pairs were given an extra 50% of their usual meal time to eat (on average, this was an extra 10 minutes or so). Then, 1–3 weeks later, each group swapped conditions, i.e., if their first meal was at their usual pace, their next meal was about 10 minutes longer, and vice versa. All the while, the participants were not told that the time of their meal was changing. This means they were somewhat blinded, or unaware of what the researchers were trying to achieve.
During the longer meal time experiment, children ate significantly more fruits and vegetables and drank more water, whereas they ate about the same amount of bread and meat (Figure 1). These improvements represented about 3 extra pieces of fruit (e.g., apple slices), 4 extra pieces of vegetables (e.g., cherry tomatoes), and 50 mL more water consumed. However, children also drank more sugar-sweetened beverages (~35 mL) in the longer meal time setting, but also ate less dessert (however, this was not quite significant).
Figure 1. These bar charts show the results of the study (2). Fruits and vegetable intake and water and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption was significantly greater (p ≤ 0.05) in the longer meal duration experiment (light green) compared to the normal meal duration experiment (dark green).
As with any study, there are some limitations to address. First of all, whether this difference would hold up over time (and not just a single meal) is uncertain. Secondly, whether this finding would also hold up in the home (as opposed to a lab) is not clear. Finally, people are more likely to behave in a more socially desirable fashion when being observed, so whether kids would also eat better at home is not clear from this study.
Despite the limitations, this was a very well-conducted study, and the findings might offer parents a means to improve their child’s diet. Considering that just a one-portion-per-day increase in fruit and vegetable intake is associated with about a 6–7% reduced risk of heart disease (3), increasing the length of your family meal time is definitely worth trying at home.
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We hope you enjoyed this article. Parents—let us know if you try this out and if you notice improvements in your child’s diet!
See you next week!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Poti JM, Popkin BM. Trends in energy intake among US children by eating location and food source, 1977-2006. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011 Aug;111(8):1156-64. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3148484/pdf/nihms295191.pdf
(2) Dallacker M, Knobl V, Hertwig R, Mata J. Effect of Longer Family Meals on Children's Fruit and Vegetable Intake: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(4):e236331. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10071335/
(3) Micha R, Peñalvo JL, Cudhea F, Imamura F, Rehm CD, Mozaffarian D. Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States. JAMA. 2017;317(9):912-24. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5852674/pdf/nihms946949.pdf
Blinding: This is the experimental process where the study participants are unaware of their group assignment. For example, if researchers wanted to test the effect of a new drug for Hay fever, they would randomise a group of people into two groups: one would get the actual drug (intervention group), and one would get a placebo pill (control group). In this scenario, the control group may believe they have gotten the drug, and are thus blinded to their group assignment. Blinding is done to reduce bias and therefore improve the quality of the experiment, as the confidence in the results will be higher (all else equal) than if the trial was not blinded.
Statistical significance: This is a term to describe the likelihood of whether a finding in a study is a “real” finding, or if it is the result of chance. Statistical significance is denoted by a p-value, which is usually set at a significance (alpha) level of 0.05. This means that if a result is significant at this level (p ≤ 0.05), we can say that the probability of getting a value as or more extreme than the observed value (under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true) is less than 5%.